Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg trailed in the popularity stakes following a live television debate with party leaders.
The Liberal Democrat leader, who is standing in Sheffield Hallam, sought to distance himself from the two main parties following last night’s two-hour showdown.
He took the chance to be seen to lay into his erstwhile coalition colleague David Cameron for seeking to insulate the better off from the pain of deficit reduction.
Allies claimed victory for their respective figureheads from the debate but several snap polls showed Ed Miliband slightly ahead of or level-pegging with Mr Cameron.
Ukip’s Nigel Farage - who came under fire for criticising the NHS treatment of foreigners with HIV - matched his established party rivals in one poll after a combative performance centred on immigration and the EU.
But one of those most pleased with the exposure will be the Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon, who comfortably topped another of the surveys of debate viewers.
After the Prime Minister refused to face Mr Miliband in a head-to-head televised debate, it was the only chance for the two men to confront one another on key election issues like the economy, jobs, immigration and health.
Conservative leader Mr Cameron accused the Labour leader of planning more debt, taxes, borrowing and spending, and urged voters to let the Conservatives complete their “long-term economic plan”
“What my plan is about is basically one word - security. Security for you, for your family, for our country,” he declared.
The “fundamental choice at this election” he said was to “stick with the plan, and with the team who brought that plan, because it’s working and it’s helping.
“Or put it all at risk by the people who gave us the spending, the debt, the taxes and the waste.”
In a clear effort to bolster his credentials as an alternative premier, Mr Miliband repeatedly described what he would do “if I am prime minister”.
“I believe that it is when working people succeed that Britain succeeds. If you believe that too, I ask for your support and let’s bring the change that Britain needs,” he appealed.
Mr Farage repeatedly accused the other leaders of being “all the same” and said only the “plain-spoken patriotism” of Ukip would control immigration by pulling Britain out of the European Union.
But he clashed with Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, who accused him of “scaremongering” and said he should be ashamed of himself for raising the HIV issue and declaring: “We’ve got to put our own people first”.
Ms Sturgeon said the country could no longer afford austerity.
“To people in Scotland I say: vote SNP for a louder voice for Scotland. To people elsewhere I say: ours will be a voice to help bring about change for you too.”
Mr Clegg sought to distance the Liberal Democrats from the two biggest parties, directly taking on Mr Cameron over what he termed “ideologically driven cuts” and challenging Mr Miliband to use the opportunity presented by the debate to apologise publicly for “crashing the economy” as part of the last Labour administration.
“Just imagine, David Cameron, the chaos in people’s lives” if NHS and education spending was cut, he taunted the PM.
Natalie Bennett tried to persuade those considering a vote for the Greens that it would not be “wasted”, urging them: “Vote for what you believe in. You don’t have to go on voting for the lesser of two evils.”
At one point, Mr Cameron was interrupted by a heckler from the 200-strong studio audience, Victoria Prosser, who demanded to be heard as she protested at the treatment of military veterans, shouting: “There’s more of us than there is of them and they are not listening to us.”
Mr Farage claimed an early advantage, with 24 per cent of viewers polled at the half-way point by ComRes for ITV News rating him the best performer, ahead of Mr Miliband on 21 per cent and Mr Cameron on 19 per cent.
But by the end, the picture was less clear, with Mr Miliband leading an ICM poll in The Guardian taking 25 per of support, just ahead of Mr Cameron on 24 per cent, with Mr Farage on 19 per cent.
Mr Farage was on 19 per cent, Ms Sturgeon 17 per cent, Mr Clegg on nine per cent, Natalie Bennett on three per cent and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood on two per cent.
A ComRes post-debate poll for ITV News had Mr Miliband, Mr Cameron and Mr Farage tied in first place on 21 per cent, with Ms Sturgeon on 20 per cent.
And a YouGov poll had the SNP leader top with 28 per cent backing, followed by Mr Farage on 20 per cent, Mr Cameron on 18 per cent and Mr Miliband on 15 per cent.