Abbott's gals steal election limelight

SYDNEY - The two prime ministerial candidates, both 55, have unveiled a weapon not seen in past Australian elections - their children, who are playing a prominent role in their campaign for the Sept 7 election.

The two younger daughters of opposition leader and election favourite Tony Abbott seem to have made the most impact so far.

Frances, 22, studies design and Bridget, 20, is a radiology student. They have been helping to soften his image - he was a boxer - and ease public concerns about his attitude towards women.

Most recently, they went to his rescue after he said people should vote for Liberal party candidate Fiona Scott because she had "a bit of sex appeal".

The comment caused a public outcry and revived concerns about Mr Abbott's alleged sexism and misogyny - a claim made against him last year by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Frances, who was with her father when he made the comment at a campaign event in Sydney, visibly cringed. But the sisters later put it down to their father being "daggy", or uncool.

Mr Abbott ran with the line. "As the kids suggested to me, I had a dad moment," he told a press conference the next day. "A daggy dad moment."

His oldest daughter, Louise, 24, is working in Switzerland and is not involved in his campaign.

In Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's family, he has strong support from his daughter Jessica, 30, an author who has written magazine columns and regular tweets promoting her father.

His son Nicholas, 24, a lawyer, is a paid adviser and has gone on the campaign trail with him. Younger son Marcus, 20, is a campaign volunteer.

Jessica, married with a baby daughter, has travelled around the country to muster support for Mr Rudd in recent weeks. Like the Abbott girls, she has had to go to his defence at times.

In a television interview last week, she denied claims that he has a vicious temper behind closed doors.

"The stuff about him being rude - he's not rude," she told Channel Nine last Wednesday. "(He) can be argumentative because he's a politician... but he's a kind and compassionate person."

The children of Australian politicians have made campaign appearances before, but not to this extent.

An expert on Australian politics, Dr Zareh Ghazarian from Monash University, said the children helped to humanise their fathers and show that they can be "one of the people".

"We have seen a lot of Abbott's daughters, in particular - more than we have seen of other leaders' children in the past," he told The Sunday Times. "They are certainly working to make him appear as a softer character."

Still, Bridget and Frances have not always fallen into line with the views of their father, a conservative and staunch Catholic opposed to same-sex marriage.

They have described themselves as non-practising Catholics and supported moves to legalise gay marriage in Australia.

The two girls were their father's secret weapon at his official campaign launch last Sunday. They spoke directly before their father and introduced him to the audience and the nation - a role usually reserved for a leading party figure, such as the deputy leader.

After Mr Abbott's keynote speech, opposition frontbencher Greg Hunt told Fairfax Media: "As good as Tony was, I think Frances and Bridget were the stars."

Aside from helping to bolster their fathers' political message, there may be another reason for the children's involvement.

"I think people actually like seeing them," Dr Ghazarian said.

"They are young. They are attractive. They seem like good kids because they are with their dad. Who can have a problem with that?"

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