LONDON - Britain's final TV election debate Thursday may be Prime Minister Gordon Brown's last chance to repair his tarnished reputation, after an open microphone caught him dismissing a retired Labour voter as a "bigoted woman."
Brown's campaign gaffe - dragged out for hours on television with him finally going back to the woman's house to apologize - dominated the news. But candidates on Thursday have to tackle an even thornier issue - how to kick-start Britain's sluggish economy amid deepening economic troubles in Europe.
And with Britain's three main candidates neck-and-neck ahead of the May 6 national election, the country appears headed toward a hung parliament in which no group holds a majority and urgently needed decisions on the economy may be delayed by the need to build coalitions.
Britain's first-ever televised debates, three in all, have already spurred an unexpected transformation in the country's politics. Nick Clegg, leader of the perennially third-place Liberal Democrats, has turned in two sparkling performances, shocking the election's two heavyweights, Brown of the ruling Labour Party and David Cameron of the Conservatives.
In two weeks since the first debate, Clegg has emerged as a credible new contender to lead Britain - shaking up the dominance of Labour and the Conservatives, the two major parties who have traded power since the 1930s.
The Liberal Democrats have even leapfrogged over Labour into the second spot in many recent surveys - with their support surging to about 30 per cent of potential votes in opinion polls from 18 per cent. The latest surveys show Cameron's party leads with about 33 per cent and Brown's Labour sits third with 28 per cent.
But Thursday is expected to be the most decisive TV debate, with its focus on the economy. Britain has struggled through a deep 18-month recession in which around 1.3 million people have been laid off and 50,000 families have had their homes repossessed.
Whoever governs Britain after the May 6 vote must quickly tame a mammoth 152.8 billion pounds ($235.9 billion) deficit racked up during the global financial crisis. Britain will likely suffer the largest cuts to public services since World War II, taxes are sure to rise and efforts to cut unemployment will take time.
"It really is the defining issue of the campaign - so we'll have to hope that they will finally be nailed down on the subject," said Howard Archer, chief U.K. economist at IHS Global Insight.
Archer said all three main parties have been so far reluctant to give "the gruesome details" of the budget cuts and economic constraints that lie ahead.
"Of course, they're not particularly vote-winning policies," he said.
That sentiment was reportedly backed by Britain's central bank chief, who was quoted by a U.S. economist as saying that drastic - and unpopular - cuts were on the way.
David Hale told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television that Bank of England Governor Mervyn King told him earlier this year that "whoever wins this election will be out of power for a whole generation because of how tough the fiscal austerity will have to be." The Bank of England declined comment on the interview.
The Economist, an influential publication, threw its support behind the Conservatives on Thursday, saying neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats were serious enough about trimming what it called Britain's "terrifying" deficit.
Still, the magazine acknowledged that Brown is seen as having made "mostly the right decisions" on how to tackle the global economic crisis.
After a particularly painful 24 hours, the prime minister appeared grateful to take on his strongest subject.
"Yesterday was yesterday," Brown said, referring to his embarrassing flub. "Today I want to talk about the future of the economy."
He vowed to use the TV debate to remind voters of his handling of the economic storm and to discuss fears that Greece's debt crisis could spread through Europe. Currencies and stock markets tumbled Wednesday on fears over Athens' plight.
Brown vowed to focus on "how our economy can move through what are difficult times, given what we see happening in the rest of Europe, in Greece and elsewhere."
His rivals were careful not to exploit Brown's misstep. "The words speak for themselves - I'll leave that to others," said Cameron.
"He's apologized, he's explained why what happened, and I'm certainly not going to start commenting," said Clegg.
Economic policies will be key for the uncertain voters that all three parties need.
In the struggling town of Lowestoft, on England's eastern coast, a once bustling port has suffered from sharp decline, with little interest in the dwindling catches offered for sale at a daily fish market.
Resident Daniel Edwards said there's one key issue for him. "Employment. There are no jobs in Lowestoft, I've been unemployed for six months to a year," he said.
Some angry Britons blame an influx of 6 million foreigners since Brown's Labour took office in 1997 for worsening their plight. Immigrants - many from poor countries - have been accused of snatching jobs, pushing down wages and overwhelming welfare services.
It has driven some to support the far-right British National Party. The issue also got the prime minister into trouble.
Brown, forgetting that he had a television microphone pinned to his chest, called 66-year-old widow Gillian Duffy a "bigoted woman" Wednesday after she had needled him on immigration at a campaign stop.
Some voters say they don't know which party would be best.
"I think it's time for somebody else to have a go - who is the right person? Who knows? It's an impossible job," said Mark Harvey, a supervisor at Lowestoft's market for wholesaler JT Cole Fish.
Associated Press writer Andy Drake contributed to this report from Lowestoft, England.