Soldier's funeral marks truce in Australia campaign

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CANBERRA, Nov 2 (Reuters) Australia's election race was suspended for the funeral of a soldier killed in Afghanistan today as fresh polls showed Labor dominating the conservative government halfway through the six-week contest.

For the second time in a month, Prime Minister John Howard and Labor's Kevin Rudd put political rivalries aside to attend a funeral service for an Australian commando killed in Afghanistan, where the US ally has close to 1,000 troops.

Australia's military contribution to Afghanistan has mixed public support but the backing of both Howard and Rudd. But Rudd has promised to withdraw combat troops from Iraq if he wins power at the November 24 election.

The lull in campaigning came as the election race reached a mid-point, with Rudd maintaining a strong lead in opinion polls amid accusations both sides are engaged in copycat politics by adopting each other's policy plans.

''They are really setting a world record in being copycats, but there are two things they can't copy. They can't copy our experience and they can't copy our capacity to manage the Australian economy,'' Howard told local television today.

The latest Nielsen poll in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers show the first three weeks of the election campaign have had little impact on voter support, with Rudd maintaining an election-winning 10-point lead over Howard.

It found Labor support at 55 per cent, up one point over the past two weeks, compared to 45 percent for Howard's Liberal-National Party coalition government, down one point over two weeks and little changed from pre-election polls.

But the same poll found Howard's government was still considered better economic managers, despite five interest rate rises since the last election in 2004, and expectations of another lift as soon as next week.

Rudd, who needs to win 16 seats to claim power, has led in every opinion survey since he was elected in December 2006 to lead Labor and is considered best to manage health, education, the environment and labour laws.

Howard's ruling Liberal Party has accused Labor of copying 36 of its key policies.

Howard's campaign team has been accused of copying a Labor plan for emergency medical centres, and Howard publicly considered matching Rudd's 20 per cent renewable energy target by 2020, although he later ruled out adopting the same figure.

The platform mirroring has led analysts to dub the 2007 election as a ''Me Too'' campaign. Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper on Friday ran front-page photographs of Howard and Rudd with the headline: ''Spot the difference''.

The Age newspaper's political editor, Michelle Grattan, said the government was struggling to find a way to shift public support, particularly against Rudd.

''Rudd is physically resiliant and tactically smart, including being a political kleptomaniac, happy to steal anything worth having from his opponent,'' Grattan wrote on Friday.

Labor hopes that by matching government plans, voters will focus on its key policies on Iraq, its pledge to sign the Kyoto climate pact and its plan to scrap unpopular labour laws.

It aims also to ensure voters focus on Rudd, 50, who has promoted himself as a new generation leader compared to Howard, 68, who has been in power continuously for 11 years.

REUTERS SZ HS1016

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