LONDON — He led his country into a highly unpopular war, many voters think he's untrustworthy, and some deride him as "Bush's Poodle." Yet British Prime Minister Tony Blair is favored to do what no Labor Party leader has ever done: win a third consecutive term in office.
What is Blair's secret? Maybe it is the ramshackle Conservative Party opposition that seldom goes through a week without shooting itself in the political foot. Or perhaps it is the fear that a vote for the third-party Liberal Democrats is, by definition, a wasted vote. To hear Blair and his loyalists tell it, it is the economy.
Today, Blair is expected to pay a visit to the queen and let her in on the country's worst-kept political secret: The date for the country's general election will be May 5, as his Cabinet confirmed at a meeting Thursday.
That will officially kick off a frenetic campaign of dueling news conferences, crisscross travels and tabloid-headline skirmishes that in Britain lasts just one month.
Articulate and still boyish at 51, Blair is a policy wonk with a passion for such high-minded causes as aiding Africa, advancing Middle East peace and curbing global warming.
Blair is often compared to Bill Clinton, but with a spotless personal life. The drawback may be that many people are simply weary of him after eight years, especially because many suspect him of being a little too glib and too willing to stretch a point for political expedience. Epithets applied to him by opponents have included "King of Spin," "Phony Tony" and "B.Liar," and nearly two-thirds of respondents in a recent YouGov poll said that his government had not been honest and trustworthy.
Nevertheless, the polls are promising for Labor, indicating the left-of-center party is maintaining a lead of between 4 and 8 percentage points over the Conservatives under Michael Howard. Charles Kennedy's Liberal Democrats, to the left of Labor on some issues, are coming on strong from behind in third place.
The country's voting system tends to give Labor an edge, even though it has a narrow popular vote margin overall.
Labor has 408 seats in the 659-seat House of Commons, compared with 162 for the Conservatives and 55 for the Liberal Democrats. The betting is that Labor will lose some of that massive edge, but not enough to yield control of the chamber.
The Conservatives, whose party was dominant in the country for the better part of two centuries, are gnashing their teeth that widespread disillusionment with Blair has not translated, so far, into a return of the electorate to the party of Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher.
One indication the Conservatives are in an identity crisis came last week, when a party spokesman asked newspapers to stop calling them the Tories, a nickname at least 200 years old. Now, apparently, it is thought to conjure recollections of the divisive style of Margaret Thatcher or the "sleaze" under her successor, John Major -- not what the party wants now.
Conservatives would prefer that voters focus on what they don't like about Blair.
"The one word that comes through on the doorstep is that people don't trust him," the Conservatives' deputy leader, Michael Ancram, said in an interview. "Our job is not so much to prove to people that they can't trust him, because they know that already. It's to prove to people that they can trust us."
Facing his first general election as Conservative leader, Howard, a gray-looking man in steel-frame glasses, is a spirited debater but has yet to inspire the electorate.
Blair chides him as being a man of the past. That Howard is 11 years older than him, and served in Conservative governments in both the 1980s and '90s, helps the charge stick.
Perhaps to compensate, Howard has launched a barrage of challenges to Blair on taxation, spending, crime, immigration, government waste, a proposed European constitution, abortion, civil liberties and even political correctness.
His latest attacks have taken a populist tone: accusing Labor of being soft on the illegal caravan camps sometimes erected by Gypsies and other "travelers" on public lands, and on "yobs," British slang for foul-mouthed drunkards who intimidate people or otherwise misbehave on the streets. His supporters also have slammed the Labor Party for alleged anti-Semitism, saying that a poster depicting Howard and another Conservative leader as flying pigs was offensive because both are Jewish.
So far, none of these tilts at the Labor Party has survived more than a few days in the headlines, amid what seems to be widespread voter apathy and cynicism.
Meanwhile, Howard has found himself mired in an embarrassing standoff with a fellow Conservative, Howard Flight, who was overheard saying the Conservatives plan more draconian cuts in government programs than they have let on.
Fearing for his party's credibility, Howard moved to boot Flight from the party's parliamentary slate. Their ongoing row has delighted Labor.