Gordon MacMillan,  UK Politics

Will the TV leader debates change us?

Will it be historic? Will it be more than quips and point scoring? Millions are expected to tune in tonight and Twitter will light up as the three leaders prepare to debate on ITV in the first of the TV debates.

With audience predictions of between 12 and 20 million tonight could be a huge moment in British politics at a time when trust an enthusiasm for the process is at a low ebb.

The large audience could still turn it around for one party in what is the closest election for a generation. What is it going to mean for Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrats? He is the unknown in here like Vince Cable in the debate of the chancellors.

David Cameron has been complaining about the strict rules imposed, which is as pointed out in The Guardian odd as his team helped draft them. He is after all our friend and wants to empower us all.

The Americans must wonder why we have waited so long to do this. They have had televised debates on air since 1976 ( a long gap between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960) giving us sound bites galore including the oft quoted riposte made by Lloyd Bentsen to Republican vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle.

The debate comes at a time in the campaign when the main political parties face what The Times called “a wall of public antipathy amid a tightening race”.

And it is a tight race. With every poll that comes the Tory lead appears to be slipping representing itself on the periodical table as an unstable political element that allows no concrete predictions.

Just a day after Cameron launched the Conservative party manifesto, full of his party’s big ideas, his lead slipped again. That must be depressing. With one poll showing the Tory lead down to just 3% other polls also show a fall for the Tories putting them on an average of 37% and Labour on 31%. The Tories need a 10 to 11% lead to ensure a slim victory.

Maybe that has something to do with what Simon Heffer wrote in the Daily Telegraph yesterday. He had no kind words for Cameron and raised Tony Blair’s image to haunt the Tory leader.

Heffer said all Cameron’s talk of sharing power were things we had seen before in another party’s manifesto. Guess which? “The heir to Blair, in his long-winded speech at the launch yesterday to introduce his long-winded manifesto, confirmed that the shade of the last prime minister will hang over our country after May 6. All the talk of people power, cleaning up politics, bringing prosperity – it’s all in the 1997 manifesto: the Labour one.”

The Times said that its Populus poll revealed “deep disenchantment with the campaign” so far and high levels of “scepticism about manifesto pledges and the parties’ honesty”.

How will that translate onto television and beyond as many of us will not be watching alone. We will watch with friends and family from the couch and will interact across social media on Twitter and Facebook.

The Conservatives are organising parties following last month’s effort to watch David Cameron’s interview with ITV’s Trevor McDonald and this time using Twitter and Facebook on a more organised basis.

The level of tweeting is expected to be high and will likely far exceed the hour-long chancellors’ debate last month where more than 11,000 tweets were sent as two million tuned in.

Social media could influence and shape how we interpret what we see on the screen. The social elements of these debates make them as unpredictable as the polls themselves. ITV will display live sentiment tracking from a select sample of people and Facebook has invited its 23 million UK users to take part in a dial test with a simple like and dislike meter on its Democracy UK page and rate it minute-by-minute.

But no matter all the talk about social media this is more a media election in the UK (as it was in the US). The tweeting has been furious, virals and spoofs have been flowing, but I have a real sense that little of this Twitter permeates much beyond the political and media classes.

There hasn’t been that break through as there was in the US where it exploded with Barack Obama and that isn’t a failure of social media it is I think a reflection on the race. The candidate isn’t there.

Cameron Blair lite or not has failed to excite the public as the former Labour leader did as he stormed to a historic landslide victory in 1997 and again in 2001. Maybe the last time that election politics could excite the public before long wars and scandals jaded many.

It all points increasingly to hung parliament, which really wasn’t meant to happen for Cameron who at one stage looked like he would walk it. It doesn’t look like he will be walking anywhere including across the House to the government benches.

But that was before tonight. Maybe his fortunes will alter. The Times puts it likes this:”TV debate can put Cameron in No 10 or sink him – and he knows it”. Maybe he will fill in the economic blanks in the Tory manifestos. Maybe Brown will shine in front of the cameras buoyed by the leading economists who have today given them backing over Cameron. Either way a few minds might be made up in these coming debates.

Gene adds: We’ll be opening a thread for comments on the debate shortly before it starts.