David Cameron may have hoped to enter the last days of campaigning for Britain's general election with a bigger lead than he has -- but he still looks the best bet to emerge as its new prime minister.
Cameron had been tipped to win the first-ever TV election leaders' debates which have dominated the campaign, but his performances disappointed many voters who saw him as too slick and pre-prepared.
Instead, his Conservative party's message of change after a scandal over lawmakers' expenses and a deep recession was seized by the Liberal Democrats, whose leader Nick Clegg performed strongly in the debates.
The Conservatives may be ahead in opinion polls then, but not with the double-digit lead they enjoyed for months last year.
They will have to push hard to seal victory in the final days of campaigning amid talk of a hung parliament.
If Cameron does not replace Gordon Brown and become the first Conservative premier for 13 years, experts say there could be big trouble in the party which he has extensively modernised since becoming leader nearly five years ago.
Cameron was educated at Eton, Princes William and Harry's old school, and Oxford University, where he was a member of rowdy student dining society the Bullingdon Club alongside Boris Johnson, now mayor of London.
The Conservative leader's background -- he is also reportedly a descendant of King William IV -- has led to accusations he is too privileged to understand the problems of ordinary Britons.
He earned a top degree and after graduation got a job with the Conservative Party, where he rose to become an adviser to finance minister Norman Lamont. Cameron was by Lamont's side when he announced Britain was leaving the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on "Black Wednesday" in 1992, one of the most damaging moments in recent Conservative history.
He later left politics to spend seven years working as communications chief for leading media company Carlton but in 2001 won the safe parliamentary seat of Witney, near Oxford in southern England.
Once a member of parliament, Cameron swiftly rose to the top. He became party leader in 2005 after the Tories' third straight election defeat since 1997 by Tony Blair.
Cameron's first task as leader was to "detoxify" the Conservative brand -- much as Blair and others had done for Labour in the 1990s.
The Tories -- once labelled the "nasty party" by one of his front benchers -- were known for their strong views on issues such as immigration control and seen as unwelcoming to women and ethnic minorities.
Despite resistance from the old guard, Cameron was determined to make the party more centrist and populist, coining the phrase "compassionate Conservatism" to describe his outlook.
His emphasis on environmentalism -- he even visited a Norwegian glacier and posed with husky dogs in 2006 -- and fixing social problems in what he called "broken Britain" were among the clear breaks with the past.
He also managed to smooth over historic Tory splits on Europe -- a running sore since Margaret Thatcher's time -- notably by pulling out of the main centre-right group in the European Parliament and allying with fringe parties.
The new leader has also used his own family to show voters the party has changed.
His glamorous wife Samantha, creative director of upmarket luxury goods maker Smythson, has made regular appearances on the campaign trail.
And he regularly talks about his son Ivan, who died last year aged six, and how the boy's cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy shaped his support for the state-run National Health Service (NHS).
Cameron has vowed that the NHS would be protected from the quick cuts he says are vital to reduce Britain's record state borrowing levels which Brown, by contrast, wants to delay.
In the dying days of the campaign, Cameron has acknowledged that the election is far from over and stressed: "We're taking nothing for granted".
He has pledged a final push to get his party over the finishing line ahead of Clegg's Liberal Democrats -- who one poll put within a single point of the Tories Saturday -- and Brown's Labour, which is polling in third.