CANBERRA - The rush of the oncoming election is stripping the lustre from the two men who are already sparring for the leadership of Australia.

The latest opinion poll has shown a further marked fall in the personal popularity of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, the one-time golden boy who once reached a record peak in voter satisfaction for the job he was doing.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has narrowed Rudd's lead to the surprise of many but is now facing rebellion and anger in the ranks, and has fallen victim to the flaying tongue of former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Keating, the man who turned vitriol into a political art form and who famously described the Senate as "unrepresentative swill", yesterday lashed Abbott as an "intellectual nobody", a "sort of resident nutter", and a "poor man's John Howard".

Abbott was a minister in Howard's long-running conservative government, ousted by Rudd in 2007.

"Do we want little John Howard?" Keating told ABC radio.

"It was bad enough having the real John Howard ...

"If Tony Abbott ends up being the Prime Minister of Australia you've got to say 'God help us, God help us'."

Abbott's solid run since taking the Liberal leadership from Malcolm Turnbull last year has significantly improved the Opposition's performance in the polls and sharpened Labor's focus on an election Rudd has warned will now be a tough fight.

But he has recently stumbled badly, most notably with plans for a big business-funded compulsory parental leave scheme that he announced without consulting his party and which has come under mounting fire.

His finance spokesman, outspoken National Senator Barnaby Joyce, yesterday added to his woes by warning that Abbott's parental leave plan would force up the prices of basic foodstuffs.

In Queensland, Liberal MP Michael Johnson, who holds the federal Brisbane seat of Ryan by a wafer-thin majority, is fighting claims of fraud and corruption surrounding donations to the Australia-China Development association, which he chairs.

Johnson fervently denies the allegations, and says he is the target not of Labor, but of "prominent Queenslanders" within the state's Liberal-National Party who want him out of Canberra.

And Abbott himself has brought new wrath down upon his shoulders by attacking the Government's practice of acknowledging the traditional indigenous owners of the land when ministers address public functions.

In most cases traditional owners have no hope of claiming back the land, but the acknowledgement has become a standard mark of respect in the Government's indigenous policies that followed Rudd's formal apology to the Aboriginal Stolen Generations.

Abbott told News Ltd this week that the practice smacked of tokenism and formalism by Labor politicians "overburdened with a sense of political correctness", prompting a wave of outrage.

However, Rudd is having his own problems, key among them the reluctance of the states to accept health reforms that would require them to forgo 30 per cent of their GST funding in return for handing control of hospitals to local boards directly funded by Canberra.

He is also struggling with the political costs of a rising wave of asylum seekers, whose numbers are overwhelming detention facilities on Christmas Island and will likely overflow into another centre near Darwin.

And the big boost he was expecting from a three-day visit from Barack Obama has been dulled somewhat by the news that domestic problems have shortened the United States President's Australian stopover to 24 hours - albeit with an address to a joint parliamentary sitting.

Obama will arrive in Canberra on March 25, and will spend all his time in the capital.

Reflecting his woes, the latest Newspoll in the Australian yesterday said Rudd's personal approval was at its worst since he became Opposition Leader in December 2006.

Voter satisfaction with Rudd - which reached a 25-year Newspoll peak of 71 per cent after his stolen Generations apology - has slumped to 48 per cent, although he still maintains a strong lead over Abbott as preferred Prime Minister, 55 per cent to 30 per cent.

Satisfaction with Abbott was almost unchanged at 47 per cent, and the Opposition's 41 per cent to 39 per cent lead in the primary vote was its best position since November 2006.

Labor still led 52 per cent to 48 per cent in the two-party preferred vote that decides Australian elections.