Calm down, I'm not Obama, Clegg tells jubilant party
Liberal Democrats claimed yesterday that Nick Clegg had turned the British election campaign into a true three-horse race by winning the first televised leaders' debate.
Mr Clegg was declared the victor by surveys of the debate's 9.9 million viewers. He played down its significance, insisting he had merely "secured the right to be heard" and added: "I think people are getting a bit hyped up."
Aides claimed he performed only as well as expected. One said: "We are keeping our feet on the ground."
All were keen to avoid a "David Steel moment", after the former Liberal leader told his party in 1981 to "go back to your constituencies and prepare for government".
Yet senior party figures and spokesmen described Mr Clegg's performance as a watershed. One councillor compared him with Barack Obama.
Lord Ashdown, the former party leader, said Mr Clegg had "changed the dynamic of this election" and turned it into a "three-way race".
The first post-debate opinion poll found Lib Dem support had risen by three points to 24pc, four behind Labour. The poll, by ComRes and ITV, indicated no party would have an overall majority, which would increase the Liberal Democrats' power in the Commons.
Ed Davey, the party's foreign affairs spokesman, predicted the debate would give the party "momentum". He said: "It's possible this will completely change this election campaign."
Speaking to party activists in Warrington, Cheshire, Mr Clegg described the debate as an "important moment" but added: "It is just the start."
Later in Hull he said: "I think people are getting a bit hyped up about this. It's just one leaders' debate."
Yet Bob Barr, a Lib Dem councillor in Warrington, was among those activists who refused to make light of his party's rare moment at the centre of national attention. The semi-retired geography lecturer likened Mr Clegg to Barack Obama, who in 2008 rose from relative obscurity to win the US presidency. "It's change you can believe in," Dr Barr said. "He's creating real enthusiasm."
Mr Clegg dismissed the comparison as "absurd". But he did allow discussion of the "immense sense of optimism" on which Labour swept to power in 1997.
Baroness Williams, the Lib Dem peer and former Labour cabinet minister, who joined Mr Clegg, said: "He has established the Liberal Democrats at an equal level of seriousness."
Aides disclosed that David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary whose constituency is in Sheffield Brightside, had told Mr Clegg, who is standing in Sheffield Hallam, that "Sheffield won" the debate.
The phrase "I agree with Nick", used by Gordon Brown in an attempt to share some of Mr Clegg's success, was one of the most talked-about topics on Twitter, the micro-blogging website. One activist presented Mr Clegg with a rosette bearing the phrase. (© Daily Telegraph, London)