AUSTRALIA - Mr Kevin Rudd's campaign to win the Australian election on Saturday has been dealt a damaging blow after he fell behind opposition leader Tony Abbott as preferred prime minister for the first time in their four-year rivalry.
A survey published on Monday by Newspoll found Mr Abbott has a two percentage point lead - 43 to 41 per cent - over Mr Rudd as preferred prime minister, with 16 per cent uncommitted.
The poll marks a dramatic turnaround for Mr Rudd, one of the country's most popular prime ministers during his first term from 2007 to 2010.
Mr Abbott's conservative Liberal-National Coalition has stretched its lead against the ruling Labor party. The 54 per cent to 46 per cent lead is a margin which would produce a landslide victory for Mr Abbott if it continues to polling day.
A defiant Mr Rudd insisted on Monday that he could still win the election and that many voters had yet to make up their minds.
"Right across the country is a deep level of uncertainty and anxiety about Mr Abbott," he told a press conference in Gladstone, Queensland.
"Sure, the government has had its challenges, I concede that. But the bottom line is that people are scratching their heads wondering, and I believe worrying, about Mr Abbott's ability to manage a A$1.5 trillion (S$1.7 trillion) economy."
Mr Rudd, 55, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat, was restored as party leader in June.
At the time, Labor faced a landslide defeat under Ms Julia Gillard, who had replaced Mr Rudd as prime minister in 2010.
Labor's gamble initially appeared to pay off and Mr Rudd had a 54 to 31 per cent lead as preferred PM in the first Newspoll survey after he returned.
But his popularity has plummeted since he was forced to run a negative campaign to try to narrow the Coalition's lead in the polls.
Labor has struggled to combat Mr Abbott's attacks that it has failed to stem the flow of asylum seekers, failed to deliver a budget surplus and failed to show stable leadership.
Mr Abbott, 55, a British-born social conservative, has long been personally unpopular. But he has used the five-week campaign to soften his image and present himself as a calm, reliable pragmatist.
Though he has leapt ahead as preferred prime minister, the latest Newspoll shows 51 per cent of people say they are dissatisfied with his performance and 41 per cent are satisfied, with 8 per cent uncommitted.
However, this is still a vast improvement from last November, when his dissatisfaction figures hit 63 per cent.
"Anything can happen between now and Saturday," Mr Abbott told a press conference on Monday.
"You have got to respect Kevin Rudd's campaigning ability even if you don't necessarily have to respect his governing ability."
In his final big speech of the campaign in Canberra on Monday, Mr Abbott declared that the main issue for voters was Labor's carbon tax, which he has pledged to repeal.
But he was earlier forced to defend his much-ridiculed description of the Syrian civil war as "baddies versus baddies". Mr Rudd said Mr Abbott had trivialised the conflict and lacked foreign policy credentials.
But Mr Abbott dismissed the attack. "I think the odd use of colloquialisms is perfectly appropriate if you are trying to explain to the public exactly what the situation is," he said.
After his speech in Canberra, he was asked whether he wanted his two younger daughters, Frances, 22, and Bridget, 20, who have helped him campaign, to become politicians, especially after the sexist attacks on Ms Gillard, Australia's first female prime minister.
"I would want to warn them that it is a pretty tough field, and if you're going to go into it, you're going to cop a lot of barbs," Mr Abbott replied.
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