CANBERRA, Oct 21 (Reuters) Australia's political leaders faced off in the only televised debate of the election campaign today and analysts said Labor's Kevin Rudd had won a clear victory over conservative Prime Minister John Howard.
Howard, 68, has been in office 11 years but polls consistently show Rudd's centre-left Labor Party holds a big lead ahead of the November 24 election.
The two leaders swapped insults over economic management, climate change and Rudd's election promise to withdraw Australian forces from Iraq, during a 90-minute debate broadcast live across Australia.
''I think Rudd had it all over Howard. He was a mile ahead,'' political analyst Nick Economou from Melbourne's Monash University told Reuters. The Nine television network's live audience scored the debate 65 to 35 in Rudd's favour.
Howard has been declared the loser in television debates in the past two elections and has gone on to win at the ballot box.
Sunday's debate was crucial for Rudd after a lacklustre first week of a six-week campaign.
Rudd, 50, painted himself as a leader from a new generation. He opened the debate with a promise to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, withdraw Australian combat troops from Iraq and said he would be a ''conservative'' economic manager.
''Australia now needs new leadership for the future,'' Rudd said.
Howard, who has won four consecutive elections, accused Rudd of being a pessimist with old ideas. Rudd could not be trusted to manage Australia's economy because the Labor leader had voted against all of the government's key reforms, he said.
''Mr Rudd is an election-eve convert to responsible economic management, because he knows he has to persuade the Australian people that he would balance the books and be a sensible manager of money,'' Howard said.
IRAQ WITHDRAWAL Australia, a close ally of the United States, has about 1,600 troops in and around Iraq and Rudd said he would withdraw about 580 combat troops from Iraq's south. ''We have a plan to withdraw the combat force by the middle of next year,'' he said.
Howard said commanders in Iraq would start negotiations next week on an ''evolving'' role for Australian forces in Iraq.
''While ever I am prime minister, the foreign policy of this country will never be dictated by terrorists,'' he said.
Economic management and interest rates are sensitive political issues in Australia, where home ownership is a national obsession.
Howard won his fourth term in 2004 with a promise to keep interest rates low.
But rates have risen five times since the last election, and economists expect the central bank to lift rates again, possibly as early as November, to curb inflationary pressures.
Both sides have unveiled tax promises worth about 30.4 billion dollar over four years, and Howard and Rudd are committed to delivering budget surpluses and to maintain an independent central bank to set interest rates.
Rudd said Labor's total election commitments would be lower than those of the government. Howard said a Labor victory on Nov. 24 would put pressure on interest rates.
''Interest rates under the coalition (government) will always be lower than under a Labor government,'' Howard said.
REUTERS SKB PM1746