SYDNEY - Australia's conservatives led by Tony Abbott are maintaining an election-winning lead over Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a poll showed Monday, after a first leaders' debate was widely called a draw.
As the race to September 7 elections entered its second week, a Newspoll published in The Australian had Abbott's coalition leading Labor 52 per cent to 48 per cent on a two-party basis, the same as a week ago.
More worrying for Rudd is that Abbott is catching him in the preferred prime minister stakes.
The charismatic Rudd has long been seen in polls as favoured leader, compared to his rival, but Abbott has significantly narrowed the gap from 14 points to nine since the campaign was called on August 4.
Crucially, when the 1,134 voters questioned over the weekend, prior to the first debate, were asked who they thought would win the election, only 26 per cent said Labor, to 54 per cent for the conservatives with the rest uncommitted.
The poll illustrates the uphill battle facing Rudd and his task was not made easier by the first live debate on Sunday night, which focused on the economy and in which neither man was able to strike a killer blow.
Rudd was accused of cheating by opposition politicians for appearing to use a wad of notes, in breach of the rules which stated only a pen and paper were allowed.
"KRudd can't even keep basic promise on 'no notes' for #debate as he read his opening speech closing speech and most of it in between!" tweeted deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop.
Rudd's office issued a statement denying any deliberate wrongdoing, saying no objections were raised at the time.
Audience responses to television stations differed on who won the debate, but newspapers widely called it a "bore draw".
"Leaders fail to land killer blow," headlined the Australian Financial Review Monday while its Fairfax Media stablemate the Sydney Morning Herald ran a similar line.
Rupert Murdoch's Sydney Daily Telegraph, which has been running an anti-Labor campaign, focused on Rudd's apparent cheating, headlining "Stop the Notes," playing on the "Stop the Boats" campaign message relating to asylum-seekers.
The Australian, another Murdoch newspaper, led on its Newspoll, saying "Abbott cements lead as Rudd slips."
During the debate, Rudd stressed his centre-left Labor government's credentials in keeping the economy out of recession while promising to introduce a bill on same-sex marriage within 100 days of being re-elected.
Abbott focused on the need for change after six years of Labor rule and committed to abandoning Labor's industry tax on carbon pollution, but he was criticised for his party failing to produce any detailed policy costings just a month out from polling day.