Australian Prime Minister John Howard yesterday called a general election for Nov. 24 in which the staunch US ally in Iraq faces the fight of his life as polls show him headed for a landslide defeat.
Pleading with voters for support whether they "love me or loathe me" after 11 years in office, Howard insisted his experience set him ahead of opposition leader Kevin Rudd.
At a press conference which ended weeks of fevered media speculation and nearly a year of bitter but unofficial campaigning, Howard made a humble but determined bid for a fifth term in office.
But even after waiting until the last minute to call the poll, and giving himself a full six week campaign time, he is facing what is expected to be the country's most bruising election clash in a decade.
The conservative 68-year-old leader of the Liberal Party is trailing badly in opinion polls in a battle against the toughest opponent to emerge since he won power, Labor Party leader and former diplomat Rudd.
Rudd has pledged to pull Australian troops out of Iraq, but it is domestic issues such as the booming economy and the government's radical industrial relations reforms that are expected to be key election battlegrounds.
Howard, who is fighting a rising tide of voter sentiment that his government has been in power too long, argued that Australia's best years could lie ahead with him at the helm.
"In order for that to happen, this country does not need new leadership, it does not need old leadership, it needs the right leadership," he said.
Howard said the choice for Australians was whether to choose a party with a proven track record, or "an inexperienced group of men and women, 70 percent of whom are former trade union officials."
With voters above all concerned over house prices and rising interest rates putting pressure on mortgages, Howard stressed his ability to manage the current economic boom and said he believed record unemployment could go even lower.
"The right leadership is the leadership that tells the Australian people where it stands on issues and what it believes in," he said.
"Can I say, love me or loathe me, the Australian people know where I stand on all the major issues of importance to their future."
The announcement came as a new survey confirmed earlier opinion polls -- the prime minister is facing a huge electoral defeat.
The Sun-Herald Taverner survey of 979 people across New South Wales and Victoria found Labor would win more than 20 seats from Howard's coalition -- four more than it needs to take power.
While analysts say Australia's involvement in the Iraq war will not be the dominant issue for voters, Howard's ouster would mark the fall of one of US President George W. Bush's last major allies in Iraq.
Other leaders of the "coalition of the willing" who have already gone or been toppled include former prime ministers Tony Blair of Britain, Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and Poland's president Aleksander Kwasniewski.
During a visit to Sydney last month, Bush made a point of expressing his friendship and lavished praise on Howard as a "man of steel" who boasted "courage and vision."
His endorsement was unlikely to sway Australians, who are shown in regular opinion polls to dislike Bush and oppose the war.
Howard said while he was aware that his decision to send troops to Iraq was unpopular, he felt it was in Australia's national interest.
Rudd, 50, a Mandarin-speaking Christian with a self-made millionaire for a wife, has argued that the government has gone stale and has no vision for the future.
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