Internet the battleground for Australia's election

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CANBERRA, Nov 1 (Reuters) Australia's election has become a war of bytes, with Labor challenger Kevin Rudd swooping on the Internet's high ground to build an army of young supporters and a Facebook fanclub on a promise of ''fresh thinking''.

The youthful Rudd, 50, an urbane Mandarin-speaking former diplomat, has embraced technology to a degree unseen in earlier Australian election contests, having to re-distribute Facebook ''friends'' after topping his 5,000-strong quota on the Web-based social network.

His screen-based soft-sell to the young has left veteran 68-year-old conservative Prime Minister John Howard scrambling to match tactics as he struggles in the polls ahead of the November 24 election.

''We've come for a friendly sleepover seeing as we're all good friends, so what do you reckon?,'' Australian comic Chas Licciardello quipped during a televised skit this week in which 50 of Rudd's Facebook mates turned up at his Brisbane home.

''I'd love it, but I've been on the road for two weeks nearly and I've got the kids waiting,'' a jovial Rudd said as he disappeared, leaving Licciardello behind with a can of spray-paint offering to ''write on his wall'', a Facebook message service.

Howard prefers video-sharing Web site YouTube as his election weapon, unveiling a string of announcements online for tech-savvy voters aged between 18 and 34. Everything from defence and whaling has been fair game.

But Howard's pronouncements on climate change, the economy and jobs have failed to make an impact, with viewers consistently turning to Rudd's rival clips in preference, according to Web site hit count records.

Up to one million young Australians will be voting for the first time at the election. Their support will be crucial to the result, with voting compulsory for the 13.6 million Australians over 18 years.

A Newspoll in the Australian newspaper today said Rudd had built a one million vote lead over Howard with younger voters, opening a gap of 775,000 over Howard among those aged 18-34 and holding a 373,000-strong lead among those aged 35-49.

In contrast, Howard's strongest support lay with older voters aged over 50, which may not be enough to haul back consistently bad polls, despite a narrowing between Labor and the conservatives halfway through the campaign.

As well as more than 5,000 Facebook friends, Rudd has 20,000 listed on MySpace. His entries list music favourites including Simon and Garfunkel, jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald and Australian bush band Redgum.

TV favourites for the avowed Christian and family values campaigner include Hogan's Heroes and Get Smart, while his ''Kevin07'' campaign Web site promises ''fresh thinking'' and generational change.

Howard's Liberal Party page lists just nine friends, while his unpopular deputy, Peter Costello, musters just 227.

Veteran political commentator Malcolm Farr, from the Sydney Daily Telegraph, said Howard had never looked so lonely and Rudd had never had so many people wanting to be his friend. ''Look, it's just Howard, I don't trust him,'' costume designer Victoria Davidov, 32, told the Sydney Morning Herald, throwing down a host of complaints about the conservatives starting with Howard's staunch support for the Iraq war.

The election will 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. But it will be won on domestic issues.

Howard is fighting to overturn a mood among voters for change despite delivering successive budgets in surplus and slashing taxes by 103 billion dollar.

''For me, as a young person and as a student, education, health care and climate change are the big issues,'' Brisbane student Sylvie Wimmer, 19, told The Australian newspaper.

''Kevin Rudd seems more interested in education policies.'' REUTERS PD SSC1103

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