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Time to fire up the attack dogs (but Cameron must stay positive)

Nick Wood's daily High Noon column.

Last Sunday I observed that the real contest in this election was Cameron versus Clegg. This Sunday, after the oxygen of publicity afforded nice Mr Clegg by the first of the Leaders' Debates, political prediction has become political fact.

SundayPapers One poll - for today's Mail on Sunday - puts the Lib Dems ahead and the others all have them closing fast on the two main parties.

The general election is in danger of becoming some vast by-election in which the Lib Dem bandwagon gathers pace and more people clamber aboard as the belief takes hold that they can actually win.

The biggest obstacle to Lib Dem progress is the widely held perception that voting for them is a wasted vote. But it is harder to argue that point as they and their Leader surge in the polls and growing numbers of the public say that they actively want all this to end in a hung Parliament.

So how does David Cameron stop the orange bandwagon?

First, the Conservatives need to go negative - and fast. They need to drive home the message that a hung Parliament would be a disaster for a country mired in an economic crisis and desperately in need of a government with the mandate and the courage to take tough decisions on tax and spending.

Second, they need to neutralise Clegg's most beguiling argument - that he and his party represent something new as opposed to the "old politics" of Tory and Labour. This is a bit rich coming from a party whose salad days coincided with the reign of Queen Victoria. What is new about tracing your political ancestry back to Gladstone and Lloyd George? Clegg is not really Leader of the Lib Dems. He is Leader of the None of the Above Party, tapping into the sense of disgust and betrayal felt by many people about politicians in general after the expenses scandal. But Clegg and his party are not untouched by financial chicanery, as Harry Phibbs so effectively pointed out yesterday. Clegg's hypocrisy over expenses needs to be exposed.

Third, the Conservatives must bring home to the public the left-wing nature of Lib Dem policy. They are soft on crime and immigration, in favour of the euro and all things European, instinctive tax raisers and spenders, weak on defence and generally bossy and bureaucratic.

Fourth, as the polls all too readily confirm, the grin on Gordon's face is getting bigger as the Lib Dem surge promises to keep him in Downing Street for another five years.

How to do it? This time David Cameron should take a back seat. He should stick to his message of optimism and change and fire up some attack dogs to take the fight to Lib Dems.

William Hague and Kenneth Clarke, both well known and well liked by the public, should be let loose on the airwaves and the press to make all four points.

Clarke has already warned about the economic perils of a hung Parliament and the grim prospect of tumbling markets and a plummeting pound.

Hague can do the beards, sandals and Lloyd George knew Nick Clegg's grandfather jokes. He can also savage the incoherence and worse of Lib Dem policy. And he can ridicule St Nick's hypocrisy over expenses and his lust for all things European.

Meanwhile, CCHQ should be helping its media friends put Clegg under the spotlight.

Dave, meanwhile, should stay positive. The Tory manifesto message about the Big Society not the Big State appears to have vanished from view. Cameron needs to make more noise about his vision for repairing our social fabric and the damage done to millions of lives by Labour's Broken Society, so ably charted by Iain Duncan Smith.

This Thursday sees the second of the Leaders Debates and one that Cameron must win clearly to stand any  chance of forming a government. Clarke and Hague should play John the Baptist for him, laying the ground for a Cameron counter-offensive against Clegg's self-styled rebel leader pose.

With Iraq and Afghanistan on the agenda it won't be easy. Clegg will again point the finger at Cameron and Brown, seeking to project onto them public disquiet about the sufferings of our troops in seemingly pointless wars far from home.

Cameron will have to be tougher, pointing out to Clegg that running a government is not like running a Lib Dem policy workshop. Difficult and unpopular decisions have to be taken in the wider national interest and seen through to a conclusion.

The Lib Dem bubble may yet burst. By next weekend we will have a better sense of whether the Clegg surge is a blip or a reality. But right now Gordon really does have something to smile about.

Nick Wood, Managing Director, Media Intelligence Partners.

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