British General Election: How the two main contenders fare

With only three weeks to go until the May 7 general election, opinion polls in Britain have indicated the race is likely to be one of the country's closest since the 1970s.

Neither the centre-Right Conservatives nor centre-Left Labour - two main parties that have always led Britain - are forecast to win an outright majority, raising the prospect of another coalition or minority government.

Nevertheless, their candidates Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband are hard at work on the campaign trail. Here's a look at the two key figures and how they stack up in the race and against each other:

THE INCUMBENT

Prime Minister David Cameron, 48, was elected in 2010 after 13 years of Labour government and is now seeking a second term in office.

Family

Mr Cameron is married to British businesswoman Samantha, 43. The couple live in London and have three children. Their eldest son Ivan, who suffered from cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy, died at age six in February 2009.

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Education

The 48-year-old is a descendant of King William IV and was born into a wealthy British family. He is an alumnus of the elite Eton college, Britain's most prestigious fee paying school. According to the Guardian, other famous alumni of the school include London mayor Boris Johnson as well as two members of the royal family - Princes William and Harry. He later graduated from Oxford University with a first class degree in politics, philosophy and economics.

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Mr Cameron's administration has often been haunted by accusations of snobby elitism that have also been compounded by public perceptions that Mr Cameron is a 'posh boy' with a privileged upbringing. A photo of him eating a hotdog with a knife and fork that went around on social media last week compounded this perception.

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Policies

Under Mr Cameron, the Conservatives - who have overseen Britain's strong recovery from the 2008 recession - are prioritising the strengthening of the economy through a plan to balance books and pay the national debt without raising taxes. They also announced extension of the "right-to-buy" housing policy of ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, to allow people living in social housing to purchase their homes at a discount. Other policies include doubling the amount of free childcare and a pledge that minimum-wage workers will pay no income tax.

Hits and Misses

Scotland voters opted to stay with the United Kingdom last year, as Mr Cameron's promises of greater autonomy for Scotland helped save him from becoming the prime minister who lost the union.

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But his plan to hold a European Union (EU) membership referendum if he is re-elected has been criticised by businesses who say it would lead to an intense period of uncertainty. Critics also say the plan is steering the party too closely towards Euroscepticism and is meant to lure back voters who have defected to the anti-EU UK Independence Party.

 

Recent gaffes

A campaign stop last week at a primary school in Bolton turned into a gaffe when a schoolgirl was caught on camera appearing to be bored by Mr Cameron's book-reading session. The six-year-old was captured on camera with her head on the table as Mr Cameron held out a book in front of them. The image led to unflattering headlines and wide mocking of the premier on social media.

THE CHALLENGER

After 13 years of rule under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the Labour party is hoping for a new mandate under fresh-faced Ed Miliband, 45. Unlike his predecessors, however, Mr Miliband is closer to the party's traditional socialist roots and has publicly criticised Labour's handling of various issues over the last decade, including the Iraq War, bank deregulation and income inequality. He has been praised for uniting the left but remains dogged by criticism that he is not up to the job yet.

Family

The son of immigrants, Mr Miliband's father was a Belgian Marxist intellectual while his mother was a human rights campaigner. He is married to Justine Thornton, 44, a lawyer. They have two young sons.

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Education

Attended Haverstock Comprehensive, a state school before graduating from Oxford with a Bachelor's degree in philosophy, politics and economics. He also has a Masters degree in economics from the London School of Economics.

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Often portrayed in the media as an awkward geek, he has also been perceived by the public as a distant intellectual. Some members of his own party also question whether he really has what it takes to connect with voters. In contrast, Mr Miliband has often portrayed himself as a common man, saying his school days taught him "how to look after yourself".

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Policies

Mr Miliband's election promise seeks to reverse his party's low ratings for economic credibility. He is seeking to put ordinary working families first over large corporations and the wealthy. To do this, he promises to end the big firms' dominance of the energy sector and pay for a tax cut for smaller firms by scrapping a planned reduction in the rate of corporation tax.

Hits and Misses

Analysts say that following the departures of Mr Brown and Mr Blair, Mr Miliband has been an important unifying figure for the English Left. The party has also sought to ride on Mr Miliband's man-of-the-people image with a manifesto pitched for "the working people of Britain".

His rivalry with elder brother David Miliband, 49, continues to haunt Ed, since he wrested the party leadership in 2010 from early favourite David. Conservative Michael Fallon alleged last week that Ed had "stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader".

Recent gaffes

Mr Miliband became the subject of many memes last year when he was unglamourously caught awkwardly wolfing down a bacon sandwich. The unwanted attention led him to tell party members that people should "vote for the other guy" - presumably referring to Mr Cameron - if they wanted a Prime Minister who could look good while eating a bacon sandwich.

SOURCES: HUFFINGTON POST, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, GUARDIAN, NEW YORK TIMES