British election debate shows US how to do it

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Media captionAnthony Zurcher discusses the debate

I started watching last night's seven-leader UK General Election debate expecting something akin to a US presidential primary multi-candidate free-for-all. What took place, however, was much more interesting.

Imagine a 2012 debate between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney - then add conservative populist firebrand Pat Buchanan, Libertarian Ron Paul, a Green Party candidate and pro-independence nationalists from Texas and New England.

The diversity of viewpoints was refreshing; the tenor of the discussion spirited.

Take the hot-button subject of immigration. It received a full airing on Thursday night, in part because it is a central focus of UK Independence Party candidate Nigel Farage. He brought the topic up early and often, calling for sizeable reductions in the number of Eastern European immigrants entering the country - and, by implication, a de facto UK withdrawal from the European Union.

His opponents offered their counters and objections, ranging from controlling benefits for new arrivals to continued open immigration.

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Media captionHighlights from the not-so-American debate

"You have to accept that people will come here, we have free movement of people," said Leanne Wood of the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru. "We expect our citizens to be treated well when they move to other countries, and likewise we must treat European citizens well when they come and live with us in our communities, too."

In US debates, by contrast, immigration has been barely discussed during the general election. In the primaries, the Republicans race to see who can appear toughest on border control and Democrats tread lightly for fear of angering Hispanic voters, a key constituency.

Intra-party debates, not surprisingly, seldom deviate from closely held orthodoxy. In presidential debates, heavily drilled candidates desperately try to avoid saying anything controversial. But with such a wide variety of candidates on stage Thursday night in Salford, there was a wealth of diverse opinions to consider.

The UK debate also created some unusual dynamics. As with many US primary forums, a pack mentality was often on display, as candidates ganged up on the perceived frontrunner - in this case, incumbent Prime Minister David Cameron.

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Media captionA crowded stage is a common sight in the US, reports the BBC's Katty Kay

There was another incumbent on stage, however - Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, thanks to the coalition government his Liberal Democrats formed with the Conservatives to forge a governing majority.

Right out of the gate, Mr Clegg launched a sharp attack on the prime minster, to which he responded, giving Labour challenger Ed Miliband the opportunity to quip: "They're blaming each other, and they're both right."

One particularly refreshing change from US politics was the number of women on the stage - Wood, Green's Natalie Bennett and Scottish Nationalist Nicola Sturgeon.

That's just two less than have participated in a presidential, vice-presidential or major party primary debate in US history (Hillary Clinton, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Carol Moseley-Braun and Geraldine Ferraro, for those keeping track at home).

"Election apart - tonight has been a fantastic exposure of old, male, stale politics by women outsiders," tweeted Channel 4 presenter Alex Thomson.

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Image caption Some polls suggested that SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon - seen on the television in this Salford pub - won the debate

In the media "spin room" after the debate, much of the talk centred around the performance of Sturgeon and some polls that showed she had won the contest. She was quick on her feet, and her full-throated defence of a state-run health service and her attacks on Cameron's "austerity" budget cuts had some spectators perhaps wishing that she were the Labour Party nominee.

All this brings up an interesting point. Were the Scottish nationals not in this race, talk in the UK likely would not be on how the contest is too close to call between Labour and the Conservatives. Instead, as much of Scotland reliably voted Labour up until now, everyone might be looking ahead to a comfortable Labour win.

But that's not reality in today's multi-party UK, where chances are whoever manages to form a government after 7 May will only do so by coalescing a variety of interests with distinct agendas.

"I hope what you heard tonight doesn't fill you with too much despair," Wood said in her closing statement.

For those who end up trying to govern, the real despair may come after election day.

This marks the end of my week-long foray into Campaignspotting, UK-style. After Easter it's back to the US and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul's Tuesday launch of his presidential campaign.

That's not it for the British coverage, however. I'll be back at the end of the month for the final push to election day.

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