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Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage Can Both Win Their EU Debate

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The promised head-to-head European Union debate between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage has a strange dynamic - both men could emerge as winners.

For the deputy prime minister it is a chance to establish himself as the genuine anti-Ukip voice ahead of the European elections in May. The Lib Dems have decided to double down, in American terminology, on their status as the most explicitly europhile party. Clegg isn't making a pitch to all voters, he is targeting the not-insubstantial pro-EU vote. Whoever eurosceptics vote for, it isn't going to be the Lib Dems.

For Farage, the reverse is true. The debate is a high profile platform for him to drive home the message that Ukip are the true scourge of Brussels and that David Cameron, with his promise of an in/out referendum, is a siren voice that should be ignored by eurosceptics voters. He doesn't need to waste time trying to appeal to committed europhiles, he doesn't need them.

Many Tory MPs may find themselves in the uncomfortable position of cheering on the deputy prime minister, hoping he can use the skills that 'won' him the general election debates to burst Farage's bubble.

Farage also has a lot personally riding on the outcome of the European parliamentary elections. He has stoked expectations that he will lead Ukip to first place. In his own words he has "taken the assets of the party and placed them on red". If Ukip perform poorly, he has admitted, it could be curtains for him as leader.

Clegg and Farage are also likely to use the debate to make common ground in one respect. Expect them to claim that while they disagree on Europe, at least they have both nailed their colours to the mast - unlike David Cameron and Ed Miliband. Farage recently gave "full credit to Clegg" for fighting the election on an "open clear manifesto". Similarly, Clegg said yesterday of Ukip: "At least they've got a clear position. The same can't be said of the Conservatives who are split and flirting with exit and Labour who don't really have the courage of their convictions on this."

The debate is being sold as Nick V Nigel. Clegg has painted the election as a "clear choice" between himself and Farage. But while the two men will be arguing with each other, they will not be trying to convince the same audience.

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