Besieged Australian Prime Minister John Howard looked headed for defeat in a weekend election as new opinion polls yesterday tipped center-left rival Kevin Rudd to end 11 years of conservative rule.
Just 24 hours before 13.5 million Australians head to the ballot box, everyone from pollsters to bookies and election pundits predicted the political demise of US President George W. Bush's staunchest remaining ally.
But Howard, a wily and tenacious survivor, hit the campaign trail hard yesterday, insisting his Liberal Party-led coalition could still win a fifth term in power despite a campaign beset with bad luck and dirty tricks.
"I believe the coalition can win this election," Howard said from the crucial battleground eastern state of Queensland where he was attempting to convince voters it would be dangerous to oust his economic management team.
"I believe that there is a bit of a tide coming back. I sense it in the streets," he told Southern Cross Radio, even as he was hit with a slew of bad news on the eve of the election.
Two new polls showed opposition Labor Party leader Rudd set for a clear victory today, reflecting the trend in more than 100 consecutive surveys this year, while key newspapers endorsed Rudd and called for Howard's ouster.
But a third poll suggested the fight could go down to the wire, while a survey of small businesses indicated a plunge in confidence ahead of a possible change of government, boosting Howard.
A Nielsen poll showed the second-longest serving prime minister in Australian history heading for a landslide defeat with 43 percent of support against 57 for Rudd, prompting the Sydney Morning Herald banner headline: "Howard needs a miracle."
If these figures are translated into votes today, Labor would win an extra 46 parliamentary seats -- 30 more than the 16 it needs for victory -- including those of Howard and several of his top ministers.
A Morgan poll gave Labor a 54.5 percent lead over against 45.5 percent for the coalition, while a Galaxy poll gave the government a chance of snatching victory.
The Galaxy survey showed Labor with 52 percent against 48 percent for the coalition -- a lead of just 4 percent where it needs a swing of 4.8 percent to win power.
But political pundits for major news organizations and bookmakers predicted Mandarin-speaking former diplomat Rudd, 50, would be elected Australia's next prime minister, while four key newspapers threw their weight behind him.
"John Howard and his team have a proven track record but, to us, they have run out of energy," said the Australian, a national broadsheet owned by global media mogul Rupert Murdoch, endorsing Labor for the first time since 1972.
Bookie Centrebet.com tipped Labor to win, offering odds of just 1.23 to one on Rudd and making Howard the rank outsider at 4.25 to one.
Howard's marathon six-week election campaign was troubled as electors appeared tired of his government despite Australia's record economic growth, prosperity and low unemployment under his fiscally conservative watch.
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