Election Watch 2005: Focus is on turnout as election gets under way

So here we go. On Tuesday, Tony Blair confirmed Westminster's 'worst-kept secret' by seeking the Queen's permission to dissolve parliament and calling the general election for 5 May.

Saturday night's death of Pope John Paul II had delayed the PM from firing the starting gun by a day, allowing tributes to the pontiff to occupy the limelight.

Blair woke up on Tuesday morning to a clutch of opinion polls showing the Tories narrowing the gap to just two or three points, and the news that Labour's candidate for Ribble Valley had defected to the Lib Dems.

A MORI poll in the Financial Times among those 'certain to vote' even put the Tories five per cent ahead.

As the three main party leaders abandoned the traditional battle bus for campaign helicopters, Michael Howard got personal in alluding to the 'smirking politics' of Blair.

Charles Kennedy pledged to base the Lib Dem campaign around people's hopes rather than fears.

On Wednesday, MP Paul Marsden, who had defected from Labour to the Lib Dems in 2001, defected back to his old party.

The three main party leaders clashed face-to-face for the only time in the election campaign for the last Prime Minister's Questions of this parliament.

Charlie Whelan, p22, Leader, p23. COLIN BYRNE

Folk who complain that politics is boring need to think again - this contest is already shaping up like something scripted by Quentin Tarantino.

We've had the campaign start delayed by the death of a Pope, and pre-election skirmishing dominated by the tale of a woman who pulled out her own teeth with a pair of pliers. All the party leaders must be hoping this high drama can be maintained, because they share a secret fear that turnout on 5 May could be below the 2001 figure of 59 per cent.

Postal voting means the media are more important than ever. One in eight votes were sent by post in the European elections, and mailed-in votes can be swayed by what's in the news on the day you lick the stamp.

Cue hyperactivity from Alastair Campbell, with the fight for headlines linked to real votes.

Colin Byrne is CEO, UK and Ireland for Weber Shandwick.

He formerly ran the Labour Party press office

OLLY GRENDER

A good start, a defection from Labour, unfortunately followed by one to Labour 24 hours later.

Most commentators expected a slower pace from Kennedy in 2001 following the military style of Ashdown. Instead he demonstrated real dynamism with the 'Flying Start', travelling across all parts of the UK in the first week.

This time Kennedy will kick off in a light aircraft, covering 2,000 miles, focusing primarily on urban areas.

This emphasises the Lib Dems' contention that 'the political party formerly known as The Tories' is virtually absent in Scotland, Wales and many parts of England.

In many urban areas outside London the Lib Dems are in a strong second place to Labour. They will continue to play on this point to counteract their greatest challenge - the question of their own credibility to govern.

Olly Grender, MBE, is a freelancer. She was formerly director of comms for the Liberal Democrats and aide to Paddy Ashdown

NICK WOOD

Turnout is the key issue now that Tony Blair has named the day.

The nightmare haunting Labour HQ is that for a variety of reasons - Iraq, privatisation of public services, civil liberties etc - core supporters fail to turn out on 5 May or defect to the Lib Dems.

Tuesday's MORI poll made the point. Among people certain to vote (55 per cent), the Conservatives have a five-point lead. So Howard's core vote is in better shape - 71 per cent of Tories are certain to vote, compared with 57 per cent of Labour.

The strategic challenge for Blair is to remotivate his natural supporters and get them to vote.

Howard's challenge is trickier. He not only has to keep his core voters happy but has to reach out to swing voters and draw them into the fold.

Howard has to be tough and tender for victory.

Nick Wood is MD of Media Intelligence Partners. He was formerly media director for the Tories and chief political correspondent of The Times.

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