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Howard faces toughest election yet

  • Story Highlights
  • Polls show Liberal-National coalition trailing the opposition
  • Saturday's election likely to deliver victory to Labor leader Kevin Rudd
  • Howard is campaigning on his strong economic record
  • Rudd warns against complacency and says election will be close
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By Geoff Hiscock
For CNN
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SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Polls suggest that more than 11 years of conservative rule in Australia looks likely to come to an end this Saturday as the nation votes on whether Prime Minister John Howard deserves another term.

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Prime Minister John Howard is facing the prospect of a landslide defeat in elections.

Howard, chasing a fifth straight win for his Liberal-National coalition, is well behind Labor newcomer Kevin Rudd in the opinion polls.

But Howard, a veteran politician who is a staunch ally of U.S. President George W. Bush, is known as a wily and tenacious campaigner who has been written off in previous political battles, only to come back victorious.

"It's not over yet," he said this week, telling supporters Wednesday the election was still winnable for the coalition.

Rudd agrees it will be close.

"Whoever wins this election on Saturday will win by a nose," he told the National Press Club in the Australian capital Canberra on Wednesday.

The key issues for Australia's 13 million voters are seen as economic management, education, health, national security and climate change.

Howard, 68, is running a campaign that relies heavily on his economic record -- which has delivered more than a decade of solid growth and budget surpluses, albeit with five interest rate rises since May last year -- and the skill of his designated successor, Treasurer Peter Costello.

Howard has pledged to stand down some time during his next term if he wins on Saturday, and says Costello would make "a great prime minister."

Costello, 50, has been Treasurer and deputy Liberal leader since Howard first took office in March 1996.

Costello points to Australia's long run of budget surpluses -- contrasting them with the deficits of the United States, the UK and Japan -- and says Rudd "doesn't understand the risks" the economy faces.

Howard calls Rudd "untested" and is warning voters that a change of government on Saturday could threaten the strong Australian economy at a time of global financial instability

Rudd, 50, presents himself as a modern, forward-thinking leader with a focus on education, health reform, job training and climate change.

Since he became leader of the Australian Labor Party in December last year, he has established what appears to be an election-winning lead. Rudd, though a supporter of Australia's close ties with the United States, has already made it clear he will withdraw 550 Australian combat troops from Iraq by mid-2008.

He has said he will begin immediate negotiations with the United States and Iraq for the staged withdrawal of these troops, but would leave other military forces in the region, including a security detachment in Baghdad, a navy ship in the Persian Gulf, and transport and surveillance aircraft based in the Middle East.

Rudd's other policy priorities include immediate ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions, an emphasis on broadband rollout and school computers, a reform of hospital practices and expanded job training programs.

Howard on Wednesday nominated his top five priorities as maintaining a strong economy, national security, protecting the Murray-Darling water basin, greater constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians, and implementing his election promises.

The latest Newspoll, taken at the weekend, shows the coalition has picked up some ground in recent days to reach 41 percent, but still trails Labor's 46 percent, with minor parties accounting for the other 13 percent.

On a two-party preferred basis, Labor leads the coalition 54 percent to 46 percent -- a significant change from the October 2004 election result, when Howard scored a resounding fourth straight win and the coalition took 52.8 percent of the two-party vote.

Labor has 60 seats in the 150-seat lower House of Representatives, with the coalition holding 87 and independents holding three.

To reach 75 seats and win government, Labor would need a uniform swing of just under 5 percent, according to Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) election analyst Antony Green.

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Howard - the second longest-serving Australian prime minister after Sir Robert Menzies (1939-41 and 1949-1966) - told supporters this week the election was still winnable and warned that a Labor victory in Saturday's federal election would mean that for the first time since Australia became a nation in 1901, Labor would hold government both nationally and in all states.

Rudd, who is a Chinese-speaking former diplomat, has had a spectacular rise in his relatively brief political career, defeating former Labor leader Kim Beazley for the top role in December 2006. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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