Coalition increases margin although results from three weekend polls show Rudd remains preferred leader.
The second week of the campaign for the September 7 election dawns with Kevin Rudd conceding Labor remains the underdog and, if reports are accurate, Opposition leader Tony Abbott is already working on his victory speech.
The signs are not good for Rudd.
The halo of the resurrected Prime Minister is looking increasingly tarnished as voters start seriously considering their options amid deep concerns for suburban finances and the economic health of the nation.
Three polls at the weekend showed the Coalition opening its lead on the Government, although the gap remains small. Rudd continues to be the nation's preferred leader, but Abbott is gaining ground. Averaged out, the Galaxy, Nielsen and ReachTel polls give Labor 48 per cent of the two-party preferred vote that decides Australian elections, behind the Coalition's 52 per cent.
Last night Rudd and Abbott went head-to-head in the first live debate of the campaign with the emphasis heavily on the economy, identified in most polling as the most important of voters' concerns.
Rudd struck a positive note in his opening statement, weaving Labor's "new way" slogan several times into his remarks and closing with: "I offer you a new way to secure Australia's future." He looked forward, ignoring Abbott whereas Abbott frequently looked at and addressed Rudd.
Abbott balanced positivity with criticism: "We are a great country but we can't afford another 3 years like the last 6." He added: "If you want a new way, you need to choose a new government."
In later questions, Rudd said: "Economic wisdom lies not in cutting things to the bone." When asked how his promises would add up Abbott said: "You will see in good time before polling day exactly how much we're going to spend and save."
Rudd defended his asylum-seeker policy with: "I believe in acting according to the people's mandate." Abbott said: "We invented offshore processing."
Rudd points to Labor's success in steering Australia through the global financial crisis and its aftermath, and hammers Abbott for failing to disclose his policies. He wants to convince voters the Coalition is secretly planning to increase GST and apply it to food, and will brutally cut services, spending and jobs. Abbott paints Labor as a profligate and incompetent manager that squandered the A$20 billion ($23 billion) surplus it inherited from former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, bungled spending programmes and is addicted to debt that will cripple the nation.
Yesterday's Galaxy poll in News Ltd newspapers showed that one-third of respondents considered Rudd's earlier record as Prime Minister was his largest albatross. About 20 per cent considered him a "fake". The Fairfax Nielsen poll further showed the Coalition is streets ahead as preferred economic manager, opening the gap on Labor by seven points in the past month to lead 56-38 per cent.
But voters surveyed by Galaxy said Abbott's biggest weakness was that he was not yet "prime minister material".
Rudd's job was not made easier by the dumping of Geoff Lake, running for Labor in retiring Labor elder Simon Crean's safe Melbourne seat of Hotham, and Ken Robertson, contesting the north Queensland seat of Kennedy. Lake was sacked because he did not disclose that he had abused a disabled fellow councillor while Mayor of Monash a decade ago. Robertson resigned after calling Abbott a racist and attacking his religious beliefs.
But about 20 per cent of voters do not make up their mind until a week before the election, and there have been significant swings during earlier campaigns.
Rudd's gamble last week of parachuting former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie into the marginal seat of Forde could work either way. While he was popular until baling out in 2007, Beattie's rebirth in federal politics has been greeted with scepticism. Polling has given his Liberal rival a clear lead.
A brutal four weeks lies ahead.