- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 2, 2007

MELBOURNE, Australia — Time is fast running out for long-serving Prime Minister John Howard, who trails by more than 10 points in the polls and must hold an election before the end of the year.

A Newspoll survey published yesterday in the Australian confirmed what other polls have been saying for months: After more than 11 years in office, the conservative and staunchly pro-American leader faces a likely drubbing when he calls the vote.

His misnomered Liberal-National party mustered a bare 44 percent support in the latest poll against 56 percent for the opposition Labor Party, headed by a relatively youthful Kevin Rudd, who turned 50 last month.

Mr. Howard, whose tenure as Australia’s chief executive is exceeded only by that of the legendary Robert Menzies, has been putting off the election for as long as possible in hopes that a recent slight uptick in his standing will develop into a groundswell.

But the Newspoll survey offered only slight encouragement: The number of voters satisfied with the way Mr. Rudd is doing his job slipped to 62 percent, compared with 65 percent a few weeks earlier. But satisfaction with Mr. Howard”s own performance also dipped one point to 44 percent.

Some newspapers suggested yesterday that Mr. Howard’s only option is to hold off on calling the election until Mr. Rudd, who assumed the party leadership last December, loses his shine.

But with the government constitutionally obliged to seek a new mandate within the next three months, the Australian commented that this was “perhaps just a forlorn hope.”

Mr. Howard has been prime minister for more than 11 years — exceeded only by Mr. Menzies’ 18½ years from the 1940s into the 1960s — and an election loss would bring certain condemnation from within Liberal and National ranks that he held on too long.

He has fought off challenges to his leadership of the coalition, particularly by Treasurer Peter Costello, and should the government lose heavily, the very future of the Liberal and National parties could be in question.

Labor needs to win 16 seats from the coalition parties to secure victory and Mr. Rudd has been insistent that the election will be close.

“It will be tight … a bit like climbing Everest,” he quipped in reply to reporters” questions yesterday. “What the Australian people are saying is that they want a plan for the future.”

Mr. Rudd, borrowing the successful “New” Labor moniker coined by Britain’s Tony Blair, has been trumpeting his plans to focus on such local issues as health, industrial relations laws, the environment, housing and taxation.

Australia”s military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has been put on the back burner despite antiwar protests during President Bush’s recent visit to Sydney for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

A confident Mr. Rudd even dumped one of Labor”s most venerable traditions by declaring that if or when the party was again in power, the caucus would no longer choose which parliamentarians would receive Cabinet portfolios. As prime minister, he alone would assign these posts, Mr. Rudd said.

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