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WORLD

Worm turns a view on TV debate

By CNN's Geoff Hiscock

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Howard, left, and Latham exchange greetings before their TV debate.
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Australia
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John Howard

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- If the "worm" has a vote, Australian Prime Minister John Howard looks to be in trouble in the national elections to be held on October 9.

The "worm" -- a staple of Australian televised political debates -- is a line that worms its way across a delayed screen as a studio audience using keypads reacts to what is being said.

On Sunday night, in the first and only TV debate between Howard and his Labor Party opponent Mark Latham, the audience used their worm pads to vote decisively in favor of Latham.

He won the debate 67 percent to 33 percent -- the same margin by which his predecessor Kim Beazley beat Howard in the 2001 debate. But the worm is a poor predictor -- Beazley subsequently lost that election.

"I'm glad the worm doesn't have a vote," Howard joked as he emerged from the Nine television network studio in Sydney, where the debate was held.

Howard, who has led the conservative Liberal-National coalition government since March 1996, is ahead in the opinion polls and has been running strongly on his economic and defense credentials.

He and political newcomer Latham resumed their full-scale election campaigns in Sunday night's debate, after a quiet few days following Thursday's bomb blast outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta that killed nine people. (Full story)

Latham, who is more than 20 years younger than Howard, impressed with his populist performance. Howard, 64, looked composed and secure and pointed to the strength of his government team.

Latham again took aim at Howard's national security stance, claiming Australia has become less safe because of the conflict in Iraq.

But Howard, who is a strong supporter of the U.S.-led war on terror, rejected Latham's claim as false and attacked the Labor leader's "cut and run" policy of withdrawing Australian troops from Iraq as quickly as possible.

Latham responded that Labor, too, was a strong supporter of the U.S. alliance but would put its resources into working with neighbors on regional security in Southeast Asia.

Howard pointed to his strong economic record, saying that promises were meaningless if a government did not have the economic strength to implement them.

Latham attacked Howard's refusal to commit to a full three-year term, and stressed his own commitment to the long haul.

There is a widespread view that if Howard wins a fourth term on October 9, he will stand down in the next 18 months to make way for his heir apparent, Treasurer Peter Costello.

Howard's position is that he will stay in the top job as long as the Liberal Party wants him there.

Despite the "worm's" view, Howard remains ahead in the opinion polls.

The latest Newspoll shows the Liberal coalition leading Labor 51-49 in the two-party preferred vote.

Michael McKinley, political science lecturer with the Australian National University in Canberra, told CNN Monday that the conventional wisdom was that in times when national security was an issue, the incumbent held the advantage.

But he said Howard's refusal to acknowledge that the Iraq military involvement had raised Australia's risk profile lessened his credibility.


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