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Page last updated at 22:49 GMT, Thursday, 29 April 2010 23:49 UK

Election TV Debate: Who got the most from final clash?

By Mike Sergeant
Political correspondent, BBC News, Birmingham

David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown

In the spin zone after the debate, the Tories were looking the most satisfied.

They believe that David Cameron has improved with every TV clash, and now has the momentum to make a serious push for Downing Street.

Nick Clegg had another strong evening too. The instant polls showed his rating holding pretty steady from last week. But there was no repeat of his spectacular win in the opening encounter.

Gordon Brown remains in the battle of his political life. Marked down in some instant polls, he must be hoping that - however people now judge his personality and performance - they will opt for experience when crunch-time comes next Thursday.

Highlights from the final Prime Ministerial debate

We were told long in advance that this final debate would be the most "critical" of the three. Well, perhaps.

It certainly would have been if any of the three had made a ghastly mistake or crumbled under pressure. But these three political boxers ended the evening sparring enthusiastically rather than trying to smash their opponents to the floor.

We've now watched these leaders trade blows for a total of four and a half hours.

Sharp exchanges

It's hard to draw general conclusions at the end of such a detailed and closely fought three-part contest - particularly so close to polling day.

The battle over bankers and their bonuses included some of the sharpest exchanges during the first half.

All three clearly feel that this is an area where there is still lots of anger out there, and bucket-loads of potential votes. But the dividing lines were hazy.

Not so during the next phase of the clash - when things sparked to life during the row over inheritance tax and tax credits.

Here we saw Gordon Brown make another attempt to sign the Lib Dems up for a joint attack on the Tories. Was this Labour's strategy during this final debate? To give those watching a clear idea of the common ground that could exist between Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown if there's an inconclusive result at the end of next week.

At the same time (as we saw in the prime minister's closing statement) Mr Brown was warning people of the dangers of a Liberal-Conservative alliance.

If that was Labour's game, then the others didn't seem to want to play.

'You two again'

Nick Clegg tried to repeat his trick of presenting himself as the outsider, campaigning against the "two old parties".

He laced his interjections with plenty of "let's stop this political points scoring" and "there you two go again". (I have to say these were sometimes met with groans by sections of the media centre).

During the economy part of the debate, the most feisty exchanges came between Mr Brown and Mr Cameron.

Once again this allowed Nick Clegg to sail through the middle and present his ideas, for a time, largely unchallenged.

But the Lib Dem leader did face a sustained attack on immigration. His policy for an amnesty for illegal immigrants was caught in the middle of a rare Brown-Cameron pincer movement. It's an area Labour and the Tories clearly believe the Lib Dems are vulnerable.

The final statements could signal how the three leaders will present their case in the last days of the campaign. Cameron pressed the patriotic button, and made an appeal to "help the poorest".

Clegg continued to promise fairness and renewal - urging his supporters not to get cold feet as decision time approaches. And Brown warned of the dangers of changing course, and in particular of the risks he sees in a Conservative-Lib Dem alliance.

"These debates are the answer to those who say that politics doesn't matter," said the prime minister at the end.

Certainly the voters have had a better chance than they've ever had before to watch and judge the men who want to be prime minister.

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