Firing the gun on the race ahead of May 7's tight election, Prime Minister Cameron of the centre-right Conservatives and Miliband of Labour separately faced questions from an interviewer and the public during a 90-minute show late on Thursday.

A Guardian/ICM snap poll after the programme indicated that 54 per cent of viewers gave Cameron victory compared to 46 percent for Miliband.

Commentators disagreed on whether Cameron, who focused on his party's economic record, or a "surprisingly punk" Miliband came out on top -- but many said the main winner was their
formidable interviewer, Jeremy Paxman.

"Under interrogation from Mr Paxman, Mr Cameron gave a rather defensive performance," The Times newspaper said in its editorial.

Gaby Hinsliff in the Guardian called his performance "surprisingly punk" but said the snap poll suggested viewers had already made their minds up before the show, watched by just under three million people live on Channel 4 and Sky News.

The Conservatives and Labour are neck-and-neck in opinion polls on 34 percent, according to an average calculated by the UK Polling Report website.

Both parties were hoping the TV debates would break the stalemate and see their leader edge ahead as the election campaign got under way in earnest after the end of parliamentary business Thursday.

On Friday, Miliband is set formally to start Labour's election campaign, while Cameron is campaigning in London.

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