- The Washington Times - Friday, September 24, 2004

SYDNEY, Australia — A car bombing at the Australian Embassy in Indonesia this month could be seen as playing into the hands of Prime Minister John Howard, who is campaigning for re-election on Oct. 9 as the man best able to secure the nation from terrorists.

“Who do you trust to keep the economy strong and protect family living standards? … Who do you trust to lead the fight on Australia’s behalf against international terrorism?” Mr. Howard asked the Australian people at the start of the campaign.

None of the 10 persons killed in the Jakarta embassy bombing was Australian, but the attack brought back memories of a nightclub bombing in Bali in 2002 that killed 88 Australian citizens.

Mr. Howard retains a narrow lead in most polls, but analysts say the conservative leader remains vulnerable because of his strong support for President Bush in Iraq, where he has been one of America’s most reliable allies.

In the only televised debate of the campaign, his main opponent, Labor Party leader Mark Latham, scored points with viewers by arguing that sending 2,000 troops to Iraq had made Australia less safe.

“If all the time, the effort, the money and the resources that went into Iraq had been used to break up al Qaeda, to smash Jemaah Islamiyah and to find Osama bin Laden, the world today would be a safer place and Australia would be more secure,” he said.

In a pitch with similarities to Sen. John Kerry’s campaign in the United States, Mr. Latham went on to say that if elected, his government would increase cooperation with other countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia in the hunt for terrorists.

Polling showed that Mr. Latham overwhelmingly captured the undecided voters in the debate audience.

Mr. Latham upset the Bush administration earlier this year when he said that, if elected, he would bring all of Australia’s troops home from Iraq by Christmas.

But Mr. Howard has virtually done so already, quietly withdrawing all but 850 to 900 noncombat troops — most of whom are guarding public buildings — without taking any casualties.

This has cushioned Mr. Howard from much of the criticism about the war and allowed voters to focus on the economy — a strong suit of Mr. Howard’s.

With low inflation and an annual growth of 4.1 percent, the country has weathered the worst drought in a century, the Asian economic crisis, the SARS epidemic and the fallout from the September 11, 2001, attacks.

But after eight years in office, the 65-year-old Mr. Howard has reached what is considered retirement age for Australian politicians and is being described by critics as “a rat that’s run out of puff.”

Mr. Latham is a 43-year-old product of state schools and public housing, who says he believes in the “ladder of opportunity.”

His economic platform calls for increased funding for state and poor independent schools, making medicine available to those who can least afford it and giving a tax rebate to those who earn less than $36,800 a year.

Analysts were generally positive about the package, which also called for welfare reform, but said it was poorly presented. The party itself admitted a few days later that the package was too complex for most people to comprehend.

The Labor candidate also has taken pains to reassure the United States that relations will not suffer if Mr. Latham is elected.

“I overwhelmingly regard the international role of the U.S. as a force for good, and for those of us who live in a free land and enjoy the benefits of a free society should always be thankful to America’s role in the Cold War and the fight against communism,” he has said.

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