Page last updated at 08:11 GMT, Thursday, 22 April 2010 09:11 UK

TV debate: nine things to watch

Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg projected onto the White Cliffs of Dover by Sky News

By James Landale
Deputy political editor, BBC News

The only prediction I will make with absolute assurance is that any prediction about the second prime ministerial debate will almost certainly be wrong.

No one expected that 90 minutes of television last week would give one party a 10% point lift in the polls and turn British politics upside down. As Mr Zimmerman once sang, "the wheel's still in spin and there's no telling who that it's namin'". All we should expect is the unexpected.

But let me try a few modest observations nonetheless for Thursday night's encounter in Bristol:

1. It will be harder for Nick Clegg to 'win'. Such are the inflated expectations following his performance last week that anything less than Cicero will disappoint. He has set his own bar very high.

2. It will not matter if Mr Clegg is deemed not to have 'won'. The public last week warmed not to his technical debating skill but to his apparent novelty, his folksy charm, and the fact that he was not called Gordon or David. For many voters, Mr Clegg is their vehicle of choice to express anger at the political establishment and hope for some kind of change. This political reality is not going to alter as a result of some arcane debate about Britain's precise relationship with Europe or the United States.

3. Gordon Brown will try to focus the debate on the economy. This would allow him to demonstrate his international experience and replay his greatest hits from G7 to G20, otherwise known as, "How I turned round the global financial crisis, which began in America and had nothing to do with Britain's own deficit". It would allow him to return to the subject he thinks will ultimately decide this election. And it is the best card he has got.

4. Mr Brown will struggle to turn this into a debate about the economy. Not only is this the subject of next week's final debate, but also this debate is much more likely to be dominated by Europe. Messrs Cameron and Brown - no fans of the Euro they - will be tempted to highlight Mr Clegg's unashamed pro-European credentials.

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The Lib Dem leader believes, of course, that it is in the long-term interests of Britain to join the Euro, in the right conditions, subject to a referendum.

At the same time, Messrs Clegg and Brown will be quick to point out Mr Cameron's gut Euro scepticism, asking perhaps which EU competencies the Tory leader might wish to try to return to Britain in the face of overwhelming continental opposition to the reopening of any constitutional issues. The detail might be boring but the Lib/Lab message will be clear: same old Tories.

5. All three men will offer paeans of praise for British forces in Afghanistan - but they will scrap like dogs over whether they had - and have - enough helicopters and body armour. This will not matter because for all the huffing and puffing, there is a broad consensus on the current strategy for the war - at least for now. On the same territory, Mr Clegg will try to remind voters how much his party opposed the war in Iraq.

6. Gordon Brown and David Cameron will gang up on Nick Clegg over Trident. They will point out that he is the only leader not unequivocally supporting a like-for-like replacement of the nuclear missile system. Mr Clegg will point to a clutch of generals who are desperate to spend more money on soldiers and less on submarines and who agree with the Lib Dems that Trident should be part of a future defence review.

7. David Cameron and Gordon Brown will try to 'learn' from Nick Clegg and address the camera more than the studio audience. It probably will not make much difference. Viewers can "learn" too and it could easily appear forced or a touch cheesy.

8. Mr Cameron will try to be more passionate. Much of the criticism against the Conservative leader last week was that he was too controlled, refusing to rise to Mr Brown's hostile bait. This led critics to say he appeared colourless and detached, never engaging emotionally with the audience. The aim this time will be to "let Cameron be Cameron", as some of his team have it.

9. Someone will mess up. Abroad is a dangerous place for politicians. It is all too easy to forget a foreign leader or mispronounce their name.

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