LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron's advisers thought his economic record would have delivered a solid poll lead by now. Instead, as the May 7 election approaches, the polls are largely static and a new strategy is being tested.
The absence of a breakthrough coupled with a stronger than expected performance from Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, is dampening the mood in Cameron's center-right Conservative Party.
"The worst thing is when (Conservative) Central Office tries to be helpful," one Conservative candidate told Reuters.
"On the doorstep, when you speak to voters, very little is changing. The campaign has been almost genteel."
The election, which could determine Britain's place in the European Union and Scotland's future in the United Kingdom, is the closest since the 1970s with the two main parties unable to open up a clear lead.
That has prompted both to run heavily scripted campaigns. So far, there have been no gaffes or colorful incidents.
Disrupting voter behavior this time round is the rise of former fringe parties such as the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP)and the Scottish National Party (SNP).
The SNP is threatening to all but wipe out Labour in Scotland, while UKIP is likely to steal large numbers of Conservative voters in England, making it harder for Cameron to beat Labour in areas where Miliband's party is narrowly behind.
Cameron's camp had been banking on a simple message to return it to office: That the Conservatives, who have presided over an economic recovery, offer solid financial stewardship compared to the "chaos" of left-wing Labour, which left Britain with significant debts when it left power in 2010.
It looked like an easy sell.
Cameron has helped nurture a recovery that has lifted the economy out of its deepest downturn since World War Two to give Britain one of the fastest growth rates in the developed world.
Lynton Crosby, Cameron's Australian election guru, therefore told the Conservatives to focus on that.
His philosophy, fellow advisers say, is that "you can't fatten a pig on market day," meaning voters need to be bombarded with a message well in advance of polling day for it to "take."
The Conservative problem is that it hasn't yet worked.
Labour has sown doubts in voters' minds, accusing the Conservatives, who have made deep cuts to public spending, of delivering a recovery for the rich at the expense of the poor.
That allegation, which plays up to long-running class stereotypes about the Conservatives as the party of big business, has resonated with some Britons who regard Cameron - an alumnus of Eton college and a descendant of King William IV - as being out of touch with ordinary voters.
But the main problem with the Conservative message is that most Britons - despite low inflation, high employment, and cheap mortgages - don't feel richer.
"The only thing that really matters is real wage growth and that has only just started to tick up," Tim Bale, a professor at London's Queen Mary University, told Reuters.
Polls show other issues, namely the state of the health service and immigration, are often more important to voters than the economy. Cameron included neither in five priorities he set out at the start of the campaign.
The Conservatives have also made a series of last minute spending promises that have diluted their core message.
The Conservatives have made other strategic mistakes.
Egged on by right-leaning newspapers which portray Miliband as a gauche buffoon, they cast him as an unelectable idiot.
That gave Miliband an easy opportunity to surprise voters on the upside, which he duly did while growing in confidence.
The Conservatives have also risked alienating voters and reversing efforts to clean up what some view as their toxic brand by getting too personal about him.
Defense Secretary Michael Fallon suggested Miliband had "stabbed" his brother David in the back to secure the Labour leadership, prompting critics to dust off an old charge that the Conservatives are the "nasty party."
Cameron's decision to do just one pre-election TV debate, leaving Miliband to appear in two others without him allowed the Labour leader to cut a prime-ministerial figure and to criticize Cameron in his absence.
It left Cameron open to accusations he was running scared.
Cameron's polished style hasn't helped either, leaving some voters wondering how hungry he is to be re-elected.
"There is something about me — I always manage to portray a calm smoothness or something," Cameron told the Spectator magazine. "I don't know what more I can do."
A surprise disclosure that he'd like to hand over to someone else after serving another five-year term as prime minister backfired, sparking a media frenzy about his successor.
Seeking a game changer, Cameron is selling a new message.
It asks voters to imagine the "nightmare" of Labour propped up by profligate Scottish nationalists who would use their influence to seek another independence referendum.
Labour has ruled out a formal coalition with the nationalists but left door open to an informal deal.
But the more Cameron focuses on Scotland the less he talks about the economy and some also fear he risks stoking English nationalism. Some Conservatives think it could work though.
Supporters point to other sources of hope.
Cameron is still the country's most popular political leader and his party's rating on economic competence outstrips Labour.
Conservative insiders hope for a last minute surge when voters finally decide who they are backing.
Cameron, who knows his party won't forgive him if he loses, is putting on a brave face.
Campaigning in a school on Wednesday, he helped complete a child's jigsaw puzzle. "It's a bit like the campaign," he said. "It comes together in the end."
Editing by Giles Elgood