Ordinary but extraordinary: Nick Clegg uses a common touch to expand party base

LONDON (AP) — Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg took the stage in Britain's first-ever televised election debate, hand in his trouser pocket, the relaxed outsider anxious for change.

The leader of the nation's perennial also-rans, Clegg used that stage to rise from obscurity to man of the moment in the British election — surging to second in some polls and possibly holding the balance of power in an election that may produce no clear winner.

Until three weeks ago, the 43-year-old son of an investment banker was simply the leader of Britain's harmless third-place party. But after the country's first-ever televised political debate, he became a magnet for voter anger and those demanding that Britain rethink the way it elects its leaders.

"It's a joke," he said of Britain's two party-dominated political system. "It's a stitch-up between two vested interests who have been playing ... pass the parcel with government, thinking it's their birthright to speak on behalf of millions of people."

With his humility-tinged manner and natural ability to communicate, Clegg threw the race into turmoil. Voters frustrated with the troubled economy and angry over a lawmaker expense abuse scandal found a fresh candidate whom many saw as an outsider — even though he had been a lawmaker, European parliamentarian and member of the political Establishment.

Comparisons to President Barack Obama ensued. The famous Obama "Hope" photomontage emerged — with Clegg's image in shades of red and blue. His look was boyish, his style relaxed. Young people were galvanized — many carrying hand-lettered signs that read "I agree with Nick."

Suddenly, he mattered, and he told voters they did too. His primary goal — changing the country's electoral system — became central to discussions of whether his party would enter a coalition with incumbent Gordon Brown's Labour or rival David Cameron's Conservatives.

The election, and the debates in particular, caught the public mood, with people discussing personality and politics in a way unlike before

Clegg is the product of one of Britain's most elite private schools and Cambridge University, where he studied social anthropology. His wife, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, the daughter of a Spanish senator, is a partner in an international law firm.

He spent time in the United States, doing postgraduate work at the University of Minnesota, and studied at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium. He speaks Dutch, French, German and Spanish. His father is half-Russian; his mother, Dutch.

Though he's been party leader since 2007, he has been largely anonymous — a gift in an election where people have been anxious to protest abuse of power.

With the race too close to call, and the possibility no party will win a majority, the uneven distribution of seats means Labour could hold onto Downing Street even if it finishes in third place — but Prime Minister Gordon Brown would almost certainly need Clegg's support.

In this election, he holds the cards.