Gordon Brown and David Cameron have clashed over spending cuts, tax and political reform in the first prime ministerial TV debate in the UK.
The Labour leader went on the attack against Mr Cameron during the historic 90 minute encounter accusing him of “airbrushing” planned spending cuts.
The Tory leader said savings could be made without cutting services.
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said neither of them were being “straight” with voters about the scale of cuts needed.
Mr Brown repeatedly said he agrees with Mr Clegg on a number of issues in the first half hour, from immigration to cleaning up politics.
The 90 minute debate on ITV1 is the first of three over the coming weeks.
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Mr Clegg, who won the draw to make an opening statement first, told the studio audience “I believe the way things are is not the way things have to be”.
Gordon Brown, in his opening statement, warned against a “double dip recession” and vowed to protect the NHS, police and schools from cuts.
David Cameron promised to restore trust after the expenses scandal and said although he would not undo everything Labour had done, Britain needed change “and it is that change that I hope to lead”.
The debate was more measured and detailed than when the three men clash in the House of Commons, with the occasional flash of anger or irritation.
The audience sat in silence as they addressed questions ranging across the domestic scene, from health and education to tax and spending.
Mr Cameron said immigration was “out of control” but Mr Brown and Mr Clegg both spoke out against his plan for a cap on the numbers coming into the country.
He said immigration was “simply too high at the moment”. The pressures on housing, health and immigration were “too great”.
“I want us to bring immigration down so that it’s in the tens of thousands not the hundreds of thousands,” he said.
“I think we need to have not just a points system but also a limit on migration when people are coming from outside the EU for economic reasons.”
Mr Brown said: “I know people feel that there are pressures because of immigration. That’s why we want to control and manage immigration.”
Labour had introduced a points system so that no unskilled workers from outside the EU could come to Britain, he added.
On the expenses scandal, Mr Brown said he was “shocked” and “sickened” by the revelations.
“Nobody should be standing for election at this election who is guilty of the offences that we have seen,” he added.
Mr Cameron described the expenses scandal as a “horrendous episode”, saying people “don’t pay their taxes for MPs to abuse the system”.
He vowed cut the number of MPs by 10%, slash ministerial pay by 5%, reduce the size of Whitehall by a third and bring in a recall system to allow voters to sack their MP.
But Mr Clegg criticised his counterparts for failing to take action, claiming Liberal Democrat plans for recall powers and reform of party funding had been blocked by the other parties.
Mr Clegg backed a recall system and said it was time to get “big money” out of politics.
Mr Brown said he did not agree with Tory plans to cut the number of MPs, but Mr Cameron asked why Parliament should be any different from families and businesses who were tightening their belts.
With the opinion polls tightening, if one leader performs well, or another badly, or if an issue emerges during the debate, it will change the shape of the general election campaign, says BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson.
The Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru will not take part in the debate, although the BBC is to hold separate leaders debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond told the BBC: “There are actually four countries in the United Kingdom not one – and the other three countries feel a bit miffed about this.”
And Plaid Cymru’s leader Ieuan Wyn Jones told the BBC many issues that would be debated had been devolved to Scotland and Wales.
“It doesn’t reflect well on the broadcasters that they haven’t recognised that the politics of the United Kingdom is now entirely different to how it was 10 years ago with devolution,” he said.
The nation’s verdict will come not from the pundits and the commentators, but in the days to come
The debates are bound by more than 70 rules agreed after weeks of negotiations between the parties and the broadcasters.
Before the questions begin, the leaders will be allowed to make a one-minute opening address, and a 90-second closing statement at the end of the show.
The audience will be asked to applaud at the start and end of the programmes, and will not be able to respond to leaders’ answers, not ask questions directly – they will be put to the leaders by the presenter.
Most of the 200-strong audience in each debate will be picked by pollsters ICM from the local area to ensure a balance of gender, age, ethnicity, social class and voting intention.
Sky News will be showing the second debate on Thursday, 22 April, which will look at foreign affairs. The final debate on BBC One on Thursday, 29 April will focus on the economy.
The First Election Debate programme is on ITV1 on Thursday, 15 April, starting at 2030 BST. In Scotland it will be shown on STV, and on UTV in Northern Ireland. You can listen to it live on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 5 Live.