CANBERRA, Oct 8 (Reuters) Australia's Prime Minister John Howard, tipped to ask voters for a fifth term within days, faces an election drubbing, with voters ranking his opponent as more trustworthy and visionary, a new poll showed today.
With his youthful opponent Kevin Rudd promising generational change taking the country into the future, the Labor Party had a 56 per cent cent to 44 lead over Howard's conservatives on preferences, the AC Nielsen poll in Fairfax newspapers showed.
Rudd, 50, also maintained a strong 52 percent to 39 lead over Howard as preferred prime minister. It was the 18th straight monthly lead for the opposition in the closely-watched survey.
''A point must come when John Howard leaps out of the aeroplane and hopes that a miracle opens the parachute,'' veteran politician analyst Michelle Grattan wrote in the Age newspaper. Howard, 68, known as ''Honest John'' by many conservative political supporters, is expected to call an election next weekend, with voters going to ballot boxes on November 17 or 24.
Howard used a weekly radio message on Monday to highlight his economic credentials, which is the one area he has maintained a steady lead over Rudd. Rudd's support has come from his promises to re-shape education, health and employment laws.
''I want Australia to become a full employment economy where anyone who wants a job and is able to work has a meaningful job that leads to a lasting career,'' Howard said, highlighting unemployment at 33-year lows.
But Howard's pitch has been blunted by successive central bank interest rate rises to a decade high of 6.5 per cent, denting traditional conservative support in outer city mortgage belts.
''At the moment these people don't really care about the economy at they're saying they intend to vote Labor or Greens,'' AC Nielsen pollster John Stirton told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.
The survey showed Rudd had a 43 percent to 32 lead over Howard on trustworthiness, while Rudd had a 48 to 38 per cent lead on the question of who had a better vision for Australia.
''The polls, it seems, are not going to provide any greater security before the jump,'' Grattan wrote.
Adding to Howard's woes, public opposition to the war in Iraq and Australia's military deployment there and in Afghanistan is eroding his usual strengths in defence and security.
A long-running drought has also lifted the importance of climate change as a major issue for 8 in 10 voters, polls show.
That made Howard's backing last week for a new 2 billion Australian dollars timber pulp mill in the divided island state of Tasmania a political gamble. Howard, unlike Rudd, has refused to ratify the Kyoto climate pact, angering environmentalists.
The candidate for Howard's Liberal Party resigned at the weekend in protest at the mill decision, although leaked government polling on Monday showed the plant would boost Howard's stocks in electorates outside the one hosting the mill.
Opposition environment spokesman Peter Garrett said voters, jaded by months of government advertising in an as-yet undeclared campaign, were more occupied by Australia's shock weekend 12-10 loss to England in the Rugby World Cup in France.
''Given that we've had this devastating result in the football, and we're all feeling it this morning, why doesn't he just get on and call the election,'' Garrett said.
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