Australia's "Lazarus" Howard aims to defy polls

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CANBERRA, Oct 25 (Reuters) Bookmakers, the polls and even the economy are against Australia's conservative Prime Minister John Howard, but the nation's political ''Lazarus'' should not be written off for November's election, analysts said today.

On the ropes once before, Howard described his hopes of a political comeback as akin to ''Lazarus with a triple bypass'', referring to the Biblical man who rose from the dead.

But the 11-year leader has proven adept at miracle resurrections throughout his political career, defying similarly bad polls and bookmaker odds to win the last election in 2004.

''I don't accept that he's heading for annihilation,'' said Gerard Henderson, a former Howard aide turned head of the independent Sydney Institute think tank.

''I think he's capable of coming back. He has a substantial task ahead of him, but it's not impossible,'' he told local media.

Still, the signs for conservative soothsayers are not good just under a month before the November 24 national elections.

A Newspoll in the Australian newspaper this week showed Kevin Rudd's opposition Labor party leading Howard's governing coalition by a thumping 58 per cent to 42 on preferences.

If confirmed at the ballot, conservative ranks would be decimated, losing 45 seats, while Labor would finish with 106 seats in the 150-seat lower house, 46 more than at present, according to leading election analyst Antony Green.

Rudd only needs 16 more seats to win government.

If that were not enough, higher than expected inflation numbers on Wednesday pointed to a interest rate rise in early November, unstitching Howard's key comeback pitch to mortgage-heavy voters of being a better economic handler.

''It's (Almost) Over,'' said a headline in the Age newspaper.

But political analyst Ian McAllister from the Australian National University told Reuters that polls pointing to a Labor landslide were misleading, given voting was compulsory and many people were undecided until the campaign's final days or hours.

''I would have thought, given the gap between the two parties, the only way the trend is going to go is to close,'' said McAllister, who has studied Australian elections for 20 years.

The election will determine Australia's climate stance and whether it keeps combat troops in Iraq. Rudd has promised to sign the Kyoto pact cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Rudd, 50, is wary of writing off Howard, Australia's second longest serving leader after conservative Liberal Party founder Sir Robert Menzies, who ruled for close to 18 years.

''I've got to win 16 seats and what I also know is I'm up against a very clever and very cunning politician,'' Rudd said after the Newspoll was published this week.

Howard's strongest hope may lie oddly in Rudd's home state of Queensland. The state sprawls from the arid outback to the tropics, and counts many regional voters sympathetic to Howard.

Currently Labor holds just six of 28 seats in the state and Rudd hopes to win six more. But a Galaxy poll of voters in key Queensland marginal seats showed Labor on track to win just two.

''It's going to be very tough,'' Rudd said.

Howard is fighting to overturn a mood among voters for change despite the country enjoying 17 straight years of economic expansion and unemployment at 33-year lows.

But in a country famous for its ''tall poppy syndrome'', where the successful are often criticised rather than celebrated, Howard has crafted a humble image that resonates with talk-back radio callers on regional radio.

Combined with his deft capitalisation of voter fears, ranging from security and immigration to the economy, Howard has defied poor polls to take victory on three previous occasions.

Howard characterised himself as ''Lazarus'' after a bitter conservative leadership row in 1989. He was dumped as leader at the time, but 18 years later is the second longest-serving leader in Australian history.

''Lazarus stirs,'' said the Sydney Morning Herald.


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