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Beeb,ITV grapple over great debate

LONDON — British prime minister John Major fired the starting pistol Monday for the most “presidential” general election campaign in the country’s history.

With the election date now set for May 1, Major looks set to agree on an unprecedented series of American-style TV debates with Labor Party leader Tony Blair.

This will be the first time in British electoral history that the leaders of the two main parties have gone head to head on television. The BBC and ITV are currently engaged in furious behind-the-scenes negotiations to secure the right to stage the events.

Both political parties seem determined to personalize the election as a clash between Major and Blair, rather than the traditional British approach of concentrating on party issues.

Blair’s remodeled Labor Party is currently a hot favorite to win the election, ending 18 years of Conservative gov-ernment. Blair has stood roughly 20 points ahead in the polls for the past two years, and the gap shows no sign of narrowing as the election approaches.

That explains Major’s willingness to confront Blair on TV. Typically, sitting prime ministers have refused the challenge of a TV debate because it helps the opposition leader look like an equal, but in this case, Major is so far behind that he has nothing left to lose.

Major’s flagging hopes received another jolt Monday when the Sun, the Rupert Murdoch newspaper that is Lon-don’s bestseller, decided to back Blair. Historically, the might of the Murdoch press, including the Sun, Times, the Sunday Times and the News of the World, has been thrown behind the Conservatives. After Major’s victory in the last election, the Sun ran a front-page headline claiming, “It was the Sun what won it.”

The decision to back Blair partly reflects the fact that the Labor candidate has performed Bill Clinton’s trick of moving so far to the right that the political distinction between the parties has become invisible — and partly re-flects Murdoch’s pragmatic desire to curry favor with the party that looks almost certain to form the next govern-ment.

At the same time, the Labor Party, which has historically been critical of Murdoch’s power in the British media, has been careful not to make any threatening noises about placing tighter controls on Murdoch’s business activities in the U.K.

Meanwhile, many prominent members of the entertainment industry look likely to mobilize their support behind Blair. Labor has traditionally won high-profile backing from creative types, but business leaders such as Granada chairman Gerry Robinson are now also starting to declare themselves in favor of a Labor victory.

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