LONDON -- Compared with national elections in the United States, Britain's parliamentary contests have been relatively civil affairs, with issues debated more than personalities and attacks waged on policy proposals but rarely on candidates.
This time around is different.
As Prime Minister Tony Blair seeks a third term in Thursday's election, his Conservative opponent, Michael Howard, has gone on an attack as fierce as any in memory here, branding him a "liar" undeserving of a third term, which would be a record for a Labor Party leader.
Howard, lagging in the polls, has tried to turn the election into a referendum on Blair's trustworthiness.
To some extent, he has succeeded.
Howard rarely goes a day without mentioning the war in Iraq and reminding the electorate that Blair's basis for committing British troops was the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which have never been found.
All over Britain there are Conservative Party billboards featuring a villainous face of Blair and the words: "If he's prepared to lie to take us to war, he's prepared to lie to win an election."
Few would disagree that Howard's Conservative Party, out of power since 1997, behind in the polls from the beginning of the current campaign and still trying to pull even, has been the most negative of Britain's three main political parties.
But Blair's Labor Party hasn't waged a mud-free campaign, either.
On the party's Web site early in the campaign was Howard depicted as a flying pig and as a miser prepared to strip lower-income people of their government benefits.
"Some people might find the campaign interesting, but it's stale cabbage," said Vernon Bogdanor, a professor of politics and government at Oxford University. "In terms of mud-slinging, it's been entertaining, if that's your sort of thing. In terms of who's going to win, it has been quite boring."
Five different nationwide polls have shown Blair's Labor Party ahead by 4 to 8 percentage points for a few weeks now, though a MORI poll released last week showed the Conservatives closing the gap among likely voters to 2 points.
Averaging those polls Friday, the British Broadcasting Corp. found Labor with 39 percent, the Conservatives with 32 and the Liberal Democrats with 22.
Blair's greatest vulnerability has been the "trust issue," and the greatest fear of party leaders is that voters who have gone Labor's way in the past will cast a protest vote for Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, or not vote at all.
If enough people do that, the prime minister has stressed throughout the campaign, the Conservatives could sneak in, returning to power for the first time since Blair defeated John Major in a landslide in 1997.
The prime minister's campaign hit its biggest bump Wednesday and Thursday, when legal advice he received from his attorney general about the war in Iraq was leaked to the BBC and Channel 4 News, a commercial television station here.
The attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, issued a memo March 7, 2003, saying the legality of going to war with Iraq was questionable unless it could be shown overwhelmingly that Saddam Hussein was in gross violation of United Nations resolutions.
Ten days later, Blair's government had an opinion from the attorney general concluding the war would unquestionably be legal.
Blair was on the defensive for two days. Britain's newspapers, outwardly political to varying degrees, jumped on the issue. Friday's Daily Express ran a headline: "Our Sons Died for Lies."
Howard attacked him for "lying" about the reasons for going to war, though the Conservative leader had to walk a fine line because he was on record supporting Britain's involvement and still says he would have made the same decision even with the absence of weapons of mass destruction.
Under pressure after declining to release the memos from the attorney general, Blair ordered the documents released Thursday.
He said the attorney general received more information on Iraq's noncompliance with the United Nations after the first memo was written and drew a sharper conclusion 10 days later based on that new information.
The war has been extremely unpopular in Britain as it has in most of Europe. Before the United States and Britain invaded Iraq, more than 1 million people protested in the streets of London, and polls show the British military's involvement remains unpopular.
On a morning radio show last week, Howard said: `This is the last chance the British people will have to send a message to Mr. Blair, to say to him, `We're fed up with your broken promises, we're fed up with the way you've lied to win elections, as over tax, and we're fed up with the way in which you lied to us over the war.' It is time for the British people to take a stand, to make a judgment on Tony Blair's character," he said. Asked by Sir David Frost if he was calling Tony Blair a liar, he replied, "Yes."