Australia's politicians pursue copycat campaign

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CANBERRA, Nov 6 (Reuters) Similar policies, a similar look and even caught cuddling the same baby, Australia's conservative Prime Minister John Howard and Labor rival Kevin Rudd are shadowing each other closely in a ''me too'' election campaign.

Both sides have accused the other of copying policies for the November 24 elections, where Howard is fighting for a fifth straight term and Rudd, well ahead in the polls, hopes to lead Labor back to power for the first time in 11-and-a-half years.

Analyst Nick Economou said the copycat campaign was a deliberate strategy by Labor to minimise differences between the two parties to appeal to voters who were nervous about change.

''People are running around saying Kevin Rudd is just John Howard reconstituted. That's probably what you have to be in this environment to get elected,'' said Economou, from Melbourne's Monash University.

Rudd, 50, has built a strong lead in opinion polls with a promise of a new generation of leadership, and with commitments to scrap unpopular workplace laws and boost resources for health and education.

And he has attempted to neutralise Howard's usual advantage on economic management by outlining identical economic policies as the government, and promising to be an economic conservative.

Both Howard and Rudd have promised to keep the budget in surplus, to keep pressure off inflation and interest rates, and both have also promised about A billion (31.2 billion dollars) in tax cuts for the coming term.

But the government has warned that Rudd's team cannot be trusted to run the nation's economy, warning of higher interest rates, higher unemployment, a wages breakout and possible recession if Labor wins power.

Howard, 68 and fighting for a fifth term in office, has accused Labor of stealing more than 30 of his policies, labelling Rudd as a ''me too'' politician and rubbishing his claim to be an economic conservative as Labor's ''echo-nomics'' policy.

The copying has extended to next week's major campaign launches of the election. Rudd and Howard plan to hold their policy launches at exactly the same venue, at an arts centre in the northern city of Brisbane.

But the copycat campaign reached a new level late on Monday when Howard and Rudd visited the same shopping centre north of Sydney within an hour of each other, with both leaders stopping to fuss over the same baby, 14-month old Austin.

His mother, Brooke Byrnes, told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper she was surprised to bump into the leaders while out shopping, adding she would probably vote for Rudd.

The copycat campaign prompted one Sydney newspaper to run a front page photograph last week of Howard and Rudd with the headline ''Spot the Difference'', while one FM radio host labelled the election as a choice between two ''nerdy men with glasses''.

Opinion polls, however, show the strategy has so far worked for Rudd, who has led in every opinion poll since he was elected to lead the Labor Party in December 2006.

The latest Newspoll in The Australian newspaper on Tuesday found Rudd's Labor held an election-winning 6-point lead over Howard, 53 percent to 47 percent.

The poll found Howard's support had improved one point over the past week while Rudd's support was down one point.

But the government's clawback could stall on Wednesday, with Australia's central bank expected to increase interest rates for the sixth time since Howard won the 2004 election with a promise to keep interest rates low.

REUTERS ARB BD1120

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