The Australian election campaign has shifted sharply to the politics of attack and fear as Labor moves to frighten voters away from Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.
Labor has decided its best chance of survival on September 7 is to play on nagging doubts about Abbott and his plans for the nation, and on perceptions of Abbott as an aggressive, pugilistic politician. Abbott's line during Wednesday night's debate - "Does this guy ever shut up?" - was immediately picked up by Labor as a snapshot of the reality behind the campaign facade.
"Mr Abbott is a very aggressive person," Finance Minister Penny Wong said. "He certainly behaves in that way as a politician, he's a fighter, and he loves to tear people down."
Abbott responded after the debate: "I think [Rudd] set out to be pretty feisty tonight. I think he set out to try to be a little bit confrontational."
Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis said Abbott had only put into words what many voters thought: "All [Rudd] does is talk and it's all waffle."
As with the verdict on the debate, opinion from both commentators and the public was divided. Yesterday, Rudd was facing his own demons. Lily Fontana, the make-up artist who prepared both leaders for the debate, described Abbott on Facebook as "absolutely lovely", but said of Rudd: "Oh boy, I have never had anyone treat me so badly whilst trying to do my job."
Rudd has a well-documented history of ill-temper and rudeness, most famously his reduction of a female air force flight attendant to tears because he did not get the meal he wanted. Yesterday Rudd said his exchange with Fontana was a "misunderstanding". His dislike of make-up had been sharpened because he was "in the zone" ahead of the debate.
Fontana's complaint has not curbed Labor's attack dog. Advertisements depicting the Opposition leader as untrustworthy and preparing for huge, as-yet unannounced cuts are already leading the campaign. The theme has been boosted by Abbott's generous parental leave plan which - at a cost of A$5.5 billion a year - would give women earning up to A$150,000 a year six months' full play plus superannuation. Attacked also by economists and big business, which will pay half the cost through a levy, Abbott has been forced on the defensive. Rudd depicts the policy as a scheme for millionaires, with the rich taking home A$75,000 while giving only a pittance to low- and middle-income women and stripping more than A$1 billion a year from self-funded retirees. "This bloke is on a different planet," Rudd said. "He is not experiencing the same reality as anyone in this room is."
Abbott has also been forced to defend himself against claims that his policies would create a A$70 billion budget black hole, and that he intended to follow the A$1 billion he took from public hospitals during the last Liberal Government with more cuts to health and education. Economists say the claimed A$70 billion hole is not supported by facts, and Abbott yesterday guaranteed no cuts to present health spending. But the doubts have been implanted.
So too have Labor's claim that Abbott intends increasing the GST - which he unconditionally denies - and that he will return to the draconian WorkChoices industrial laws. Abbott denies that, too. But the deciding question remains: can Rudd scare voters back to Labor?