Australian Prime Minister John Howard and his ministers yesterday scrambled to reduce the damage done by a leaked party dossier which says voters see him as old and dishonest.
Howard admitted that he and his conservative Liberal Party were struggling in the opinion polls with an election scheduled by the end of the year, but said he believed their position had improved since the dossier was compiled in June.
The document by two Liberal strategists, and which was leaked to the Daily Telegraph, said voters had lost faith in Howard, 68, but saw opposition leader Kevin Rudd, 49, as genuine and accessible.
"There is significant disillusionment with Liberals on the issue of broken promises and dishonesty," the dossier said.
"With the arrival of a younger leadership alternative, the age and energy of the government has also been thrown into question," it said.
Howard, who has been in power for 11 years, has acknowledged that a series of opinion polls has shown that his party could be beaten in the next general elections.
"We have been struggling this year, politically, there's no doubt, and I think that research reflected some of the negative views that were around," Howard told Australia radio yesterday.
"It was done a couple of months ago. I think our position has improved since then," he said.
Asked whether he was dishonest, Howard said: "That is the view of some people. I reject that totally."
He attributed voters' reported concerns over his age to attacks by Rudd's center-left Labor Party.
"The Labor Party's been running my age flat out, so I suppose if you keep running age, eventually some people in the community will pick up and use that expression," he said.
Rudd said he expected Howard to push populist policies to try to claw back voter support ahead of the election, widely expected in November or December.
"What I know is that we're up against a very clever politician, a very cunning politician, and there are still quite a few weeks to go before this election is called and anything could happen," Rudd told reporters in Canberra.
"This will be a very tight and very competitive election," he said.
Howard said the private polling did not take into account government moves to intervene to fight Aboriginal alcohol and child sex abuse.