Australian PM buoyed by pre-election poll bounce

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CANBERRA, Sep 18 (Reuters) Australian Prime Minister John Howard today told government lawmakers they could still win looming national elections as a new poll found a bounce in government support after a week of leadership turmoil.

Howard, 68, last week won the backing of his party to lead it into an election due before the end of the year, despite concerns from within his cabinet that he should stand aside after 11 years in power for Treasurer Peter Costello, 50.

Howard used what is likely to be the final scheduled meeting of government lawmakers ahead of the election to rally his troops on Tuesday, telling them not to lose faith in their ability to win the election, which he can call at any time.

''We can win this election,'' a government spokesman quoted Howard as telling the closed meeting of lawmakers.

''Let's not succumb to this idea we've been in too long. It's tough. We're behind. We have the capacity to do it. Don't doubt yourselves.'' His comments came as a poll published today found an eight-point shift in support towards the government after Howard announced he would stay as leader, but then retire sometime over the next three years if he wins another term.

The poll, in the Australian newspaper, found government support improved four points over the past fortnight to 45 percent, compared to 55 per cent for Labor, down four points.

It also found Howard was considered the best person to lead the government into the election, with 52 per cent support for Howard compared to 18 per cent for Costello, who will take over during the next three-year term if Howard wins a fifth election.

While the government still trails Labor by 10 points, the result has settled lingering leadership tensions and buoyed the spirits of government lawmakers in the lead-up to the election.

''What it does mean is that our candidates and our members are back into the field, feeling that it is winnable,'' Health Minister Tony Abbott told reporters.

Retiring government backbencher Bruce Baird said the new poll had secured Howard's leadership and lifted the mood within the party.

''It obviously adds to the morale within the party,'' Baird told reporters. ''I think everybody's locked-in in terms of that (leadership) decision and we press forward.'' Howard has won four consecutive elections and can go to the polls any time, but must call the election by mid-November.

Parliament goes into a three-week break on Thursday and analysts expect the election to be called before it returns on October 15.

But Howard hinted to a party meeting on Tuesday the election could be put back to late November or early December, suggesting the party might meet again during the next session of parliament.

''It may not be the last joint partyroom meeting,'' he is reported to have told his lawmakers.

Labor has maintained a solid lead in opinion polls since Kevin Rudd, 49, was elected party leader in December 2006.

REUTERS SS RN1043

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