CANBERRA, Sep 12 (Reuters) Australia's embattled Prime Minister John Howard will lead the conservative government to national elections due within months after confronting internal critics at a party meeting today.
Senior cabinet ministers had expressed doubts over Howard's ability to win a fifth election, due to dwindling support in opinion polls, and had suggested Howard, 68, should hand power to his younger deputy, Treasurer Peter Costello, 50.
But Howard's leadership was not challenged at today's meeting of ruling Liberal Party lawmakers and Howard, who has made it clear he was in no mood to resign after 11 years in office, emerged with his party's continued backing.
''We've had a party meeting and there was absolutely no evidence...of any desire on the part of the party for any change in the current leadership team,'' Howard told local radio.
''That remains the position, it has been the position for some time, and that's the position that will remain into the election and beyond,'' said Howard.
The leadership crisis was brought on by consistently bad opinion polls which show the government would overwhelmingly lose an election, with Howard and several ministers in danger of losing their seats.
The Reuters poll trend analysis of the three main published opinion polls in Australia found Howard's government trailed the centre-left Labor opposition by 14.7 points in September, representing a six-point surge towards Labor since mid August.
FRANK LEADERSHIP TALKS Health Minister Tony Abbott, a staunch Howard supporter, told reporters the party meeting included a ''very full and frank discussion'' about the government's poor position in the polls.
''At the end of the prime minister's talk, there was a strong and resounding support for the prime minister, for the existing leadership team, from the party room,'' said Abbott.
Costello has long been Howard's heir apparent, but his ambitions to take over as prime minister have been frustrated by Howard's open-ended commitment to remain Liberal Party leader.
Costello told reporters today he had not fuelled the latest leadership speculation and he planned to go into the election as deputy Liberal leader.
''This government is a team and the team is led by John Howard and me,'' he said. ''It's the team that counts.'' The Australian newspaper today said the majority of Howard's cabinet had wanted Howard to resign and hand over to Costello in order to stem the ruling Liberal Party's losses.
But Howard said he believed the government could still win the coming election, and he urged his party to be united and focus on the policies needed to win another term.
Howard, who has won four straight elections, can call the poll at any time but must set the election date before mid November. Some analysts say he might now wait to hold the election in early December.
''I haven't fixed on a date yet,'' Howard said, adding the government still had legislation it wanted passed through parliament before an election.
REUTERS CS KP1034