OPINION: Who is the better campaigner, Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott? After three years of almost complete political domination by the Coalition over Labor, the result of the looming Australian election hangs on the answer to this simple question.
Monday’s Fairfax/Nielsen Poll points to a contest that is evenly poised, but contains much more encouragement for Labor, suggesting it can pick up seats in Queensland and possibly even NSW.
In both states, but in Queensland in particular, Labor's primary and two-party preferred votes are an improvement on the 2010 election result. This is an extraordinary turnaround, and vindication of the decision to change leaders.
The surprise is the absence of anti-Labor backlash against the removal of Julia Gillard in her home state of Victoria or among female voters. Labor's two-party preferred vote in Victoria, 51-49, remains unchanged and women prefer Labor to the Coalition on primary voting intention, 44 to 39.
The temptation for Rudd must be to call an election for August 24, on the basis that it won't get much better than this. He has the momentum and the confidence from 2007 that he can win a campaign. The alternative is to wait a few more weeks, go in September, and punt that this isn't just a sugar hit.
Either way, the campaign is under way.
The cruel irony for the Coalition is that the unpopularity of the man who helped destroy Rudd Mark I, and then Julia Gillard, looms as the biggest single threat to the Coalition victory that is still expected by most voters.
Rudd's first approval rating since his return is a net positive of eight points; Abbott's is minus 15. Having had a 9-percentage-point lead over Gillard as preferred prime minister, Abbott now trails Rudd by 14 points.
Predictably, Abbott's focus is on reminding voters of the past, and the succession of mis-steps and bungles under Rudd and Gillard. Just as predictably, Rudd's focus is on projecting a vision of the future.
In the tradition of John Howard in 2001, Rudd is attempting to eliminate the issues that have alienated voters since he was cut down in 2010.
Leadership instability - gone; carbon tax - gone 12 months earlier than planned; economic debate - reframed; asylum seekers - watch this space; factional shenanigans in preselection contests - brought under control.
Abbott can criticise the quality of these responses (and all invite scrutiny), but his assertion that Rudd is all talk and no action belies what has been happening.
He is still the favourite, and his ability as a negative campaigner is still his biggest weapon, but he now faces his biggest test. Now, well and truly, we have a contest on our hands.
- FFX Aus