In Australia, Howard's campaign lags

Poll's indicate that labor leader Kevin Rudd won Sunday's live debate with Prime Minister John Howard.

He has been hailed by President Bush as a "man of steel." He has presided over an economy that is entering its 17th consecutive year of growth and raised his country's international profile by sending troops to Afghanistan, Iraq, and East Timor.

But for all his accolades during 11 years in office, Australia's prime minister John Howard is far behind in opinion polls heading into the Nov. 24 federal elections.

Many voters yearn for a fresh face – and none comes fresher than 50-year-old Labor leader, Kevin Rudd whose squeaky clean image and boyish appearance has earned him the nickname "Harry Potter."

Mr. Rudd is vigorously pushing the line that the prime minister – 18 years his senior – is stale, tired, and out of ideas.

He also sought to draw differences between himself and Mr. Howard on issues such as the Iraq war and climate change as the two leaders went head to head Sunday in a televised debate which is expected to be the only one of the six-week election campaign.

Rudd was widely judged to have performed better in the debate, with a live audience of undecided voters on one commercial television network favoring him 65 to 35 percent.

Rudd, describing himself light-heartedly as "an unemployed diplomat who speaks Chinese," said he was offering Australia a new vision and new leadership.

He said he would abolish the government's controversial industrial relations reforms and tackle climate change by signing the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

"How could it be that we're one of the only two developed countries in the world to refuse to ratify the Kyoto Protocol?" he asked. "I don't understand, I just don't get it."

He would withdraw Australia's 580 combat troops from Iraq, a conflict he described as Canberra's biggest foreign-policy mistake since Vietnam, to which Australia also contributed forces.

"The greatest risk which our nation faces is this: the coalition being returned to office and nothing, repeat nothing, changes," he said.

Howard touts economic growth

Howard said that keeping Australian troops in Iraq was vital for the prestige of the West and of the United States. "We should stay the distance," the prime minister said.

He spent much of the 90-minute debate asserting his government's skilful stewardship of the country's unprecedented economic boom and the fact that unemployment is at a 33-year low.

But the strength of the economy is not the trump card it was once for the government.

The fact that the current boom – in part based on the export of billions of dollars worth of raw materials to China and India – has gone on for so long has bred complacency, analysts say. The feeling is that the good times are here to stay, regardless of who is at the helm.

"It's a bit counterintuitive, but people are taking the strong economy for granted," says Wayne Errington, a lecturer in politics at the Australian National University and co-author of a recently published biography of Howard.

"Rudd is a conservative kind of a guy fiscally, and I think unless the opposition seems to be really intent on raising taxes or upsetting the economy, the public will accept him."

There is a spectrum of other issues that have eroded the government's popularity.

Labor's pledge to withdraw combat troops from Iraq goes down well with many voters.

The government's refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol on global warming has also angered many Australians, who have become increasingly aware of their vulnerability to climate change by the worst drought on record.

Howard has also been hurt by his pledge to hand over power to his deputy, treasurer Peter Costello, some time during the next three-year parliamentary term should his team win. Mr. Costello, whose nickname is Captain Smirk, is unpopular with many voters.

Down, but not out

Still, Howard has made a career of coming from behind to win. In 1989, when he lost the leadership of the Liberal Party, he said he would need the powers of "Lazarus with a triple bypass" to make a political comeback.

But return he did, going on to be elected prime minister in 1996. In three of the past four elections, he was initially behind in the polls but belatedly surged ahead and snatched victory.

"Under Australia's compulsory voting system, a lot of people don't make up their minds on who they'll vote for until the week or even the day before the election," says Gerard Henderson, head of the independent Sydney Institute think tank and a former chief of staff to Howard. "He has a substantial task ahead of him, but it's not impossible. I think he's capable of coming back. The gap is not as big as people think."

It is the huge mass of swing voters that the government must woo if it is to win the election, and it began last week by promising a startling $30.2 billion in tax cuts over five years.

It also launched a campaign claiming that 70 percent of Labor's front bench are ex-union bosses who would wreck the nation's trillion-dollar economy.

The strategy could prove effective. One recent poll shows the government has halved Labor's 10 to 12 point lead in recent weeks.

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