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David Cameron needs to show some grit, convey some anger and tell a joke or two during tonight's debate


Nick Wood previews tonight's leaders' debate.

Nick WoodAuthenticity, passion, incisiveness, grit - and above all humour. These are the qualities David Cameron has to display tonight in the first of the Leaders' Debates.

Cameron goes into the debate in the unenviable position of being the front-runner. Or to put it another way, he has most to lose.

The spin-doctors have been hard at work massaging expectations. Dave, comfortable in the role of being his own spin-doctor, has divulged that he is "nervous" at the prospect of the contest.

Labour's black ops brigade have told The Times the hilarious news that Gordon is struggling in training, giving long-winded answers overflowing with reams of statistics.

Mr Clegg, who has the greatest opportunity tonight to make new friends in Middle England, appears the most relaxed of the trio. His final pre-match warm-up will consist of a long walk in the Pennines. His seconds will be hoping that he gets back in time and doesn't disappear in a cloud of volcanic ash, presumably Iceland's revenge for Britain pulling the plug on its banking system.

Cameron has already made the most memorable contribution to the campaign. His Big Society versus Big State manifesto will be remembered - for good or ill - long after the dust has settled on the election.

Its boldness is impressive, but the doubt remains that like many a Hilton/Letwin confection it has gone over the heads of much of the country. As Ken Clarke might put it, does it pass the "wet Wednesday in Walsall" test? It might win intrigue university professors but will it mean much to voters in the Midlands worried about the familiar staples of taxes, health care and immigration (so far virtually unmentioned in the Conservative

Politics abhors a vacuum. In the absence of a full-scale row about sorting out the deficit, which has so far only engaged the Lib Dems, personality may come to define and determine this election.

Expectations of that misfiring adding machine Mr Brown are so low that all he has to do is smile at the right time for the Labour spin machine to declare him the winner. Provided Campbell, Mandelson and Co can reprogramme him as a human being for the night, Gordon may even get off the canvas.

Cameron, the star of unscripted, impromptu communication, has a higher hurdle to jump. His verbal dexterity and fluency is exceptional but he must not come across as slick and superficial - which will be how Brown will try to paint him. Gordon's "no time for a novice", his best line as PM, will never be far from his mind.

Cameron needs to show some grit, some rough edges, just like his "Fire up the Quattro" alter ego DCI Gene Hunt. He has to convey some genuine anger at the state of the country, brought low economically, socially and politically by Labour's spectacular mismanagement of our affairs. And he needs a joke or two about poor clunky Gordon.

As for Clegg, roaming the moors in search of a soundbite, he is the guy with lucky break. It is like Federer and Nadal making the Wimbledon final and then inviting one of the beaten quarter-finalists to join them on Centre

It will be tough for Cameron playing against two conventional leftists. If he comes out on top he will have taken another significant step to Downing Street.

Nick Wood, Managing Director, Media Intelligence Partners


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