LONDON — Divided over the country's ballooning debt, the economy and the contentious issue of immigration, the three front-runners in Britain's general election can still agree on one thing: This race is anyone's to win.
Conservative challenger David Cameron, fresh off what observers said was his best live televised debate performance to date, told BBC radio that next week's national election was "still far from won."
Nick Clegg, riding higher in the polls than most political observers had ever expected, said the campaign was "wide open."
Even Britain's ever-optimistic former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who hit the campaign trail Friday in support of his successor, Gordon Brown, could only say that their governing Labour Party "has every chance of succeeding."
An ICM/Populus poll, published Friday by The Guardian, showed the gap between each party within the margin of error. Statistically, the three-way contest involving Cameron, Clegg and Brown has become a dead heat.
Those figures are disappointing for Cameron, whose Tories at one point enjoyed a double-digit lead over Labour, which has run the country since Blair was elected in 1997.
But Labour managed to whittle away Cameron's advantage as the election drew closer, and both parties have been caught off-guard by Clegg, whose affable and straightforward style in the nation's first U.S.-style TV debate on April 15 led to a surge in support for his opposition Liberal Democrats.
Andrew Gamble, the head of the department of politics at Cambridge University, said Cameron "should be winning this election by a mile."
"The fact that they're not is deeply troubling for the Conservatives," he said. "Clegg is spoiling the party for them."
Political observers said Cameron did well in Thursday's debate, watched by some 8 million people, although Clegg also held his own. Brown placed a distant third in a performance that politics expert John Curtice described as overly defensive, the observers said.
But none of the candidates provided detailed economic recovery plans in a nation that faces major economic troubles and one of the largest deficits in Europe — both of which will require harsh cuts in public spending after the election.
Labour got bad news when The Guardian newspaper announced its support for the Liberal Democrats and The Times of London backed the Tories.
The right-leaning Times' endorsement of the Conservatives was no surprise, but Labour's loss of the left-leaning Guardian was more damaging.