If politics is show biz for plain people, Nick Clegg may have strayed into the wrong profession. During his April 20 campaign stop at an agricultural college in southwestern England, a clutch of young female students proclaimed their boyish visitor to be both "hot" and "cool." They were less sure why Clegg was there or what he represents. That pretty much defines Cleggmania, a syndrome that has spread across the U.K. with astonishing speed.
In a matter of days, the Liberal Democrat has been catapulted from the comparative obscurity of third-party politics to top the ratings as Britain's most popular political leader since Winston Churchill. Why? Because of TV. Britain's first-ever televised leadership debate on April 15 pitted Clegg, 43, against the Conservative front runner David Cameron and Labour's incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Clegg effectively hijacked what one might call the hopey-changey message hitherto monopolized by Cameron, and subsequent polls have shown the Liberal Democrats leapfrogging one or both of the larger parties in the public's affections. If that love translates into crosses on ballot papers when Britons choose a new government on May 6, Clegg and his Lib Dems could secure the biggest slice of the popular vote and a pivotal role in the next government.
Canvassing support in a verdant farmland setting just over two weeks ahead of that election, Clegg refrains from counting chickens. That's wise, not least because Britain's electoral system, like the one used in U.S. congressional elections, disadvantages third parties like the Liberal Democrats, whose support is widely distributed. "Almost 1 in 4 people voted for us last time, and we got, what, 10% of the seats in this place," Clegg told TIME in a lengthy late-February interview in his House of Commons office. Back then, the sheer improbability of the Lib Dems acquiring real power had dampened media interest in the party. Now there's a strong prospect of a minority Conservative or Labour government heavily reliant on the Lib Dems and willing to do deals to keep them sweet. That makes Clegg everyone's most wanted. (The Lib Dems' early morning press conferences have been "absolute bedlam," confides a Clegg aide. "We don't have to bribe journalists with food to get them there.")
A key question for those milling journalists is whether the Lib Dem surge will endure until voting day. Boris Johnson, London's famously outspoken Conservative mayor, derided "Cleggophilia" in a newspaper column as "the biggest load of media-driven nonsense since the funeral of Diana." Johnson might take note of the bouquets that still pile up in front of Kensington Palace on the anniversary of the Princess's death. Part of Diana's appeal was as an unlikely icon of defiance against the old order. The Lib Dems, who emerged from 2009's scandals about parliamentarians' misuse of official expense accounts less damaged in the public's perception than other parties, could benefit, if only marginally, from a protest vote against their more sullied rivals. It's no coincidence that efforts to puncture the Clegg balloon are focusing on his own expense claims, including one for a $3.85 cake pan. He can expect more and tougher scrutiny, not least of his performance in two further TV debates between the leaders on April 22 and April 29.
Clegg, this time talking to TIME in a crowded train carriage entirely reserved for his swollen media entourage, says he is keeping "a healthy sense of perspective" but believes his first TV joust and the unprecedented opportunity it gave him to appeal directly to a mass audience "tapped into a real longing for greater choice. People say to me, 'We don't like being told the only choice is between these two old parties.' "