LONDON - If Ed Miliband is to win power, he must pull off one of the most striking metamorphoses of recent British elections: convince millions of voters that "Red Ed", a self-confessed socialist geek, can be trusted to lead the world's fifth largest economy.
In a change that has confounded Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives, Miliband has already shed some of his social awkwardness and pitched a resilient, more human face, even laughing at some of his own imperfections.
Cast by opponents as a dangerous London socialist out of touch with the real world, Miliband is gambling that British politics has atomised, crumbling the middle ground and opening up space for less gleaming politicians.
That hasn't stopped him polishing his image ahead of the May 7 election in an attempt to shed what opponents say is a fatal flaw: the view he is just too wonky to lead the country.
"He's got a better suit, got a better shirt, he's presenting himself better, his hair is better, he's taking more interest in how he's appearing in the public eye," said multi-millionaire businessman David Abrahams, a former Labour Party donor.
Such is the increase in Miliband's stature that he held his own against Britain's most flamboyant politician, London Mayor Boris Johnson, in a joint interview less than two weeks before the election.
"Don't get rattled," an assured Miliband told Johnson, who appeared unprepared for a Miliband who mixed a steely gaze with a good natured dismissal of the man the Conservatives hope can push Cameron ahead in the polls.
Miliband's tough past year included a chaotic visit to Scotland where he was heckled by opponents in an independence referendum, a speech at the Labour conference where he forgot to mention the deficit and a failed plot to oust him as leader.
But because the Conservatives made his perceived lack of stature the heart of their campaign, he has flummoxed them by withstanding their attacks.
"People have thrown a lot at me over four and a half years but I am a pretty resilient guy and I've been underestimated at every turn," he said early in the campaign.
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Miliband's path to becoming prime minister was far from secure when in 2010, aged 40, the son of Jewish immigrants won the battle to replace Gordon Brown as party leader.
He was up against his more experienced elder brother David, foreign minister in the outgoing government.
But by spurning the pro-business "New Labour" legacy of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Ed secured the support of trade unions.
David Miliband led through three inconclusive rounds of party voting, but Ed won by a hair in the fourth.
Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, a veteran leftist who lost two elections in 1987 and 1992, told supporters: "We've got our party back."
But if Labour's left wing was happy at his victory, so were the Conservatives. Such was Miliband's perceived electoral weakness that Cameron's finance minister and election strategist, George Osborne, is said to have fallen on his knees when he heard the news and shouted: "Yes, Yes, Yes!" Miliband's persona was already an object of ridicule.
During the leadership battle, some Labour opponents cast him as Forrest Gump, the simpleton played by Tom Hanks in a Hollywood film, who unwittingly pops up at key moments in US history.
Opponents would continue to seize on Miliband's looks and mannerisms, comparing him to TV's hapless oddball Mr Bean. A cartoonist for the Times newspaper began drawing him as the absent-minded inventor Wallace from the "Wallace and Grommit"movies.