The overwhelming consensus is that the Liberal Democratic leader, Nick Clegg, emerged the strongest. I thought he did great in laying out specifics and in offering a "real" change, but perhaps missed his breakthrough without living in Britain these past few years.
In many ways, the TV rostrum that put all three leaders equally on the same stage gave Clegg's party the boost in recognition and standing it has always lacked. The british electoral system punishes third parties - even when they garner 20 percent of the vote in polls. Out of power for eighty years, the Lib Dems do have some strong arguments, and came across as more fiscally credible and more devoted to cutting defense and believing in civil liberties than either Labour or the Tories. The Telegraph worries that Clegg's success could be lethal for the right:
Even though Mr Cameron does have a realistic chance of entering No 10 in three weeks' time, he remains an unknown quantity to many voters. He did well, especially with his peroration, and will be keen to use the two further debates to reinforce his claim for the job. But he knows now, if he did not know it before, that a significant obstacle to that ambition is Mr Clegg.
Tory supporter Janet Daley worries that
it will take a pretty sophisticated viewer to appreciate that the LibDems have an absurdly unfair advantage in being able to offer an utterly unrealistic programme. Clegg could attack both the real alternatives without worrying about the credibility of his own policies. So it is scarcely surprising that he “won” most of the instant polls. My guess is that this will make scarcely any difference to the outcome of the election except to confirm that Brown is a dead man walking.
The Guardian's Martin Kettle thought Clegg broke through:
His final pitch was significant. Yes, he said, there is an alternative. It's not true that the parties are all the same. There's another option which Labour and the Tories will never give you. Liberal Democrats always say that, of course. But here was a Lib Dem leader saying it to a volatile electorate at a moment when, if he makes the sale, could change a lot of assumptions in the 2010 contest.
All of this is tactically grim for the Conservatives. If Tory swing voters, disgusted with Labour, nonetheless give the Liberal Democrats a chance, the effect on the marginal seats, where the Tories have been doing well, could be brutal. Cameron's nightmare is that the LibDems do well enough to enable Labour to get back into office, with a majority of seats but a miserable share of the vote. That nightmare seems closer to reality now than it did yesterday.