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Last Updated: Friday, 23 March 2007, 12:16 GMT
Rudd transforms Australian race
By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

Australia's Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd
Opinion polls suggest people find Kevin Rudd likeable

Australia's Kevin Rudd has the kind of headline-friendly name that handily suits good times and bad.

Had he made an indifferent start to his new job of opposition leader, "Rudderless" would no doubt have featured prominently in the nation's newspapers.

As it is, the Queenslander has skyrocketed in the polls since winning the Labor leadership in December, and is headed, in the journalistic parlance of the day, for a "Ruddslide".

This week a poll suggested he has surged to a 20-year high for an opposition leader - 22 percentage points ahead of Prime Minister John Howard's government, suggesting this year's federal election is suddenly up for grabs, something which seemed almost unthinkable under Labor's gaffe-prone former leader, Kim Beazley.

Family hardship

A brief thumb-nail sketch of the life and times of Kevin Michael Rudd starts in the coastal hinterland north of Brisbane, where he was born in September 1957.

His father, a farmer, died when Mr Rudd was 11, which led, it is claimed, to his family's eviction from the farm. With nowhere else to go, his mother, Margaret, was forced to sleep overnight in a car with two of her four young children.

Four years later, Mr Rudd joined the Australian Labor Party, motivated, in part, by his family's experience of hardship.

There's a clinical side to him, and sometimes he keeps his passion under wraps
Bruce Hawker

A bright and bookish student who studied Chinese language and history at the Australian National University, Mr Rudd joined the foreign service after graduation. The role of diplomat, which took him to Sweden and China, seemed to suit him academically and temperamentally.

But in 1988 he decided to change paths, and became the chief of staff to the Labor premier in Queensland.

Ten years later, after carving out a reputation as a competent if slightly humourless technocrat - colleagues nicknamed him 'Dr Death' - he won election to parliament for the Queensland seat of Griffith.

Arriving in Canberra with prime ministerial ambitions, it took him a further eight years to become Labor leader, after impressing colleagues with his performance as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs.

A committed Christian, with a neat turn in sound-bites, he seemed particularly well-equipped to appeal to the suburban swing voters who tend to decide Australian elections.

So in December 2006 he won the leadership, despite not having many close friends in the Labor caucus and little personal following.

Armour plated

If there was something mechanical about his rise, there is also something mechanical about the man.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard
John Howard has come from behind before

Austere, cerebral and self-disciplined, he is easy to respect but harder to like.

"There's a clinical side to him, and sometimes he keeps his passion under wraps," says political consultant Bruce Hawker, who has been a friend since the 1980s.

"But he's genuinely funny, and as he becomes more comfortable in the role of leader, that side of his personality will come out more," he said.

"He's a very conservative man," says ABC Political Editor Michael Brissenden, "which is why he is doing so well against Howard. It makes him very difficult to target. Howard is pulling the old levers, but he is not getting the same response".

Certainly, Mr Rudd seems to have armour-plating in parts where previous leaders, like the self-destructive Mark Latham, had weak spots.

Mr Rudd's Christianity gives him immunity in any values debate. His fiscal cautiousness makes it hard to portray him as a profligate tax and spender. And his years as a diplomat lend him strong national security credentials.

82% say Rudd is likeable - it's his strongest point, despite his nerdy image
Sol Lebovic

In recent weeks, the government has attacked his honesty, questioning whether he exaggerated stories of his childhood hardship, and even the death of his father.

It has attacked his probity, highlighting meetings held with Brian Burke, the disgraced former Labor premier of Western Australia.

But so far, Mr Rudd has emerged unruffled and unscathed.

"It's rather like an artillery unit trying to find its range," says Bruce Hawker. "But every time they land a shell, Rudd disappears down a fox hole. They just can't get him."

Early days

On this point, virtually everyone agrees.

"The learner sticker is harder to stick on Rudd than it was on Mark Latham," says Sol Lebovic, the chairman of Newspoll, which came up with this week's headline-grabbing poll.

"And 82% say Rudd is likeable - it's his strongest point, despite his nerdy image," he said.

Mr Lebovic says it would be an act of great political folly to set too much store in polls suggesting Mr Rudd is cruising to victory.

Early in 2001, John Howard was arguably in a worse position but came back to win.

And polls still suggest that voters trust the government much more than Labor over handling the economy, which is currently enjoying its 16th consecutive year of growth.

Labor looks set to romp home in Saturday's New South Wales election, though the campaign has been fought on local issues like transport rather than being a referendum on Mr Howard.

Still, Mr Rudd appeared in the final days, sprinkling his "stardust" - as one slightly star-struck newspaper put it - on a very dull campaign, and getting much-needed stump practice ahead of the federal election.

Party and ideological allegiances are nowhere near as strong in Australia as they once were, producing the kind of fluidity in political behaviour which could see the polls quickly lurch back in Mr Howard's favour.

But the prime minister is certainly in trouble, and Kevin Rudd has been the author of much of his recent grief.

The Australian government has changed hands only once in the past 25 years. Could 2007 be the year when it happens again?


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