Iain Dale, a Tory partisan, warns the Tory and Labour tabloids of demonizing Clegg:
I don't want Nick Clegg to win. I don't want him to be Prime Minister. But he is not the devil incarnate. He's a nice guy, doing a fair job of leading his party. I do not agree with many of his policies. I think many of them are misguided. But I am happy to accept that he believes they will be best for the country. I am happy to debate them with him or any other LibDem and that's what politics and this election should be about. It should be about debating ideas, arguing about policy. It shouldn't be about this sudden urge to denigrate Nick Clegg as a person. It will backfire on those who promulgate these attacks because most people can see with their own eyes that he is a transparently decent individual.
Doesn't this sound familiar? The attempted - and failed - smearing of a rising star of "new politics"?
Think of the last US presidential election. It featured very established party leaders vying for the same familiar positions. Giuliani, McCain, Romney and Huckabee were all familiar faces - and the most familiar won. Clinton was the established incumbent for the Democrats. But the mood in the country - after two disastrous wars, a spending binge, a deficit crisis, and a Wall Street collapse - was for more radical change. A new person emerged, Barack Obama, part of the two-party system but somehow able to transcend it. Ditto, in some respects, the delusional Palin, who seemed to come from nowhere to galvanize the GOP base.
America's system actually resists this kind of insurgency more effectively than Britain's. The primaries exposed every aspect of Obama for months, pushing him through a grueling democratic inspection. Palin nearly got away with it, by emerging late in the campaign with a press so scared of the red states it never truly exposed her deranged fantasies. But Britain's campaign lasts only three weeks. If the phenomenon of the new hope - Clegg - emerges during such a shortt campaign, and does so through the extremely powerful medium of television, there is very little time to burst the bubble before May 6.
If the British system operated in the US, McCain may well have been the Republican nominee in 2000 and Dean the Democratic nominee in 2004. If you think of Perot in 1992, you can easily see that the peak of his anti-incumbent popularity lasted much longer than three weeks before he came crashing down to earth.
It's still a very long shot. But my gut tells me that the Liberal Democrats might even win this election outright. If they do, Americans will have to absorb the fact that Britain is becoming more liberal, and that its foreign policy may be moving sharply away from the US alliance toward European integration. Clegg is the most passionately pro-EU candidate for office in decades. Which is why today's foreign policy debate will indeed be crucial. (Check in for live-blogging at 3.30 pm.)
(Photo: Nick Clegg by Peter MacDiarmid/Getty.)