CANBERRA, Oct 30 (Reuters) Australian Prime Minister John Howard has clawed back voter support as the November election race nears its half-way point with a new poll showing his conservatives have closed in on Kevin Rudd's Labor.
The closely watched Newspoll in the Australian newspaper showed Labor's 16-point gap had halved and support for the conservatives was up four points to 46 per cent.
Support for Labor fell by the same margin to 54 per cent, cutting its lead to 8 points.
''I think there's that volatility there, as reflected in this poll, but, look, it just confirms that we are the underdogs,'' Finance Minister Nick Minchin said today of the conservative coalition government's chances.
If confirmed at the November 24 ballot, Labor would win 87 seats in the 150-seat lower house, while the conservatives would be swept from office with just 61 seats, according to leading election analyst Antony Green.
Howard, who has lagged behind Rudd in surveys for most of the year, has been hammering home the conservative's main advantage over Labor on economic management, stressing 17 years of economic expansion and unemployment at 33-year lows.
But Howard, leader for 11 years and hunting a fifth term, also faced heavy criticism over his 2004 election promise to keep interest rates at 30-year lows. They have since been lifted five times and economists expect them to rise again on November 6.
The survey showed support for Howard as a better prime minister had jumped 4 points to 41 per cent, while Rudd's approval had slipped by 2 points to 48 per cent.
''Labor still holds a clear winning position but the coalition and the prime minister have sliced away (Labor's) crushing lead at the start of the campaign,'' The Australian's Political Editor Dennis Shanahan wrote.
Rudd, 50, has given Labor its best hope of winning its first election for 14 years, promising generational change, an education revolution and reform of health and labour laws.
The election will also determine whether Australia keeps combat troops in Iraq and its stance on climate change, with Rudd promising to sign the Kyoto pact cutting greenhouse emissions.
Howard, 68, is fighting to overturn a mood among voters for change despite delivering successive budgets in surplus and slashing taxes by 101 billion dollars.
But his promise of continued prosperity and more jobs has been blunted by successive interest rate rises to 6.5 percent, hurting bedrock conservative support in outer city suburbs, where home affordability and interest rates are major issues.
REUTERS YA HS1001