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banner Tuesday, 3 October, 2000, 13:07 GMT 14:07 UK
Hague plays the TV debate gambit

Hague: in his element
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

William Hague has resorted to one of the oldest political tricks in the book by demanding a televised debate with Tony Blair.

It is a challenge regularly thrown down to prime ministers and presidents by their opponents - and it is one they nearly always refuse to pick up.

After all, what can be gained from allowing your chief protagonist the chance of putting you on the spot for an hour or so in front of the nation?

You have nothing to gain from the clash, while the opposition leader has nothing to lose. And, by accepting, you add credibility to your challenger.

It was a lesson that was most painfully learned by Richard Nixon when confronted by John Kennedy in 1960.

Nixon - more used to radio than the glare of TV - looked unshaven and dishevelled and, in a lesson that Tony Blair will not have missed, sweated profusely.

It was generally accepted that Nixon won the political argument but was overwhelmed by the clean-shaven, good-looking, deodorised Kennedy.

In the gutter

So there is absolutely no way the prime minister - now the nation's greatest sweater - will pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Mr Hague.

Mr Blair's spin doctors brush the challenge away, loftily declaring that the prime minister is not about to get down into the gutter with Mr Hague.

But there is a growing suspicion that there is more to it than that. The prime minister's detractors are claiming that, to coin a phrase, he is "frit".

Mr Hague regularly bests Mr Blair in their once-a-week question time sessions in the Commons.

And, as he showed during an hour-long question-and-answer session in Bournemouth, he is in his element in these informal, allegedly unscripted sessions.

It was, of course, a hugely friendly audience and, despite the claims, hours of preparation went into it. But it worked.

Mr Hague managed to look cool and unruffled. Mr Blair, as the nation now knows, sweats.

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