CANBERRA, Oct 15 (Reuters) Australia's Prime Minister John Howard today asked voters to recall his strong economic and security record as he and Labor opponent Kevin Rudd began a six-week election race against more grim polls for Howard.
Howard, who set a November 24 election date yesterday, began a round of morning television and radio interviews as a Newspoll in The Australian newspaper showed Rudd's Labor ahead of Howard's conservative coalition by a landslide-winning 56 percent to 44 per cent.
''We'll have a tough campaign. It's going to be hard for the government to win again,'' the 11-year veteran Howard told local television as newspapers predicted his political annihilation.
''I believe we can win this. I believe that the Australian people will vote for strong leadership, they'll vote for the right leadership.'' Howard, 68, is fighting to overturn a mood among voters for change despite the country enjoying a long economic boom that has pushed unemployment to 33-year lows.
His pitch of continued prosperity and more jobs has been blunted by a string of interest rate hikes to 6.5 per cent, hurting bedrock conservative support in mortgage-saddled outer city suburbs, which both sides call ''aspirational'' belts.
The Newspoll showed support for Rudd, 50, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat who may bolster Australia's ties with China, was strengthening as preferred prime minister, with 48 per cent of those surveyed believing he would do better than Howard.
The centrepiece of Rudd's campaign is a call for ''New Leadership'', stressing generational change over Howard and pledging sweeping reforms to health, education and labour laws, while maintaining economic conservatism.
The election will determine the future of Canberra's military contribution in Iraq and climate change stance, with Labor promising to bring home combat troops and sign the Kyoto climate pact. But the election will be fought and won on domestic issues. Rudd, who needs to win an imposing 16 seats to take power in the 150-seat lower house, accused Howard of plotting ''the mother of all negative campaigns'' after the airing of conservative advertisements targeting Rudd's economic credentials.
''Mr Howard's flipped the switch straight away to negative.
He's very good at negative campaigns,'' he said. ''I fear it covers up that the Liberals don't have a plan for the nation's future.'' An advertising blitz estimated to be worth A million (45 million dollars) began yesterday.
Political analysts have predicted election spending may hit a national record as Howard, already Australia's second-longest serving leader, seeks a fifth term before handing over to his deputy Peter Costello.
Howard said he knew nothing about a so-called conservative dirt unit rumoured to be planning a smear campaign against leading Labor figures including environment spokesman and former rock star Peter Garrett.
''I am not interested in people's private lives. None of that stuff will have any kind of imprimatur from me,'' Howard said.
Howard today challenged Rudd to a single live debate at parliament in Canberra, which he said would be a good opportunity to thrash through issues. Rudd has demanded three debates.
Reuters CS VP0430