If the polls are right, Mr Howard, who called the election six months early after only two-and-a-half years in power, and with a majority of 42, will have to rely on the distribution of second votes from small parties and independent candidates to win a second term.
One of those parties is Pauline Hanson's One Nation, whose leader has shaken Australia's political consensus with her attacks on Asian immigration, multiculturalism and state spending on Aborigines. From being a fringe "whinge" party only a year ago, One Nation is fielding 162 candidates in today's election for the 148 seats in the House of Representatives, the lower house, and the 40 seats being contested for the Senate, the upper house (about half that chamber's total).
Under Australia's preferential system, the flow of second preference votes from One Nation will be crucial to the outcome in closely contested seats, especially in the populous eastern states of New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria where the election largely will be decided. Officially, One Nation has not recommended any order for its second preference votes.
But both the coalition and Labor have directed voters to put One Nation candidates last in the voting order. This will make it hard for Mrs Hanson to win her Queensland constituency of Blair. But it does not rule out One Nation winning a handful of lower house seats, especially in poor rural and outer-suburban areas where it has been seized upon as a protest vote against the mainstream parties.
The headlines grabbed by Mrs Hanson's often chaotic campaign, sensational statements and feisty relations with the media have overshadowed the fact that the election is likely to be dominated by another small party led by another woman. Meg Lees, an educationist from Adelaide, leads the Democrats, a left-of-centre group whose slogan is "keep the bastards honest" - the "bastards" being the two main parties of government, Labor and the coalition. Ms Lees took over when Cheryl Kernot, the Democrats' former leader, defected to Labor and resigned from the Senate a year ago.
Touted then as Labor's secret electoral weapon, the popular Mrs Kernot has barely been seen in this campaign as she, too, fights to win her marginal Queensland lower house constituency.
Instead, the Democrats under Ms Lees are predicted to hold the balance of power in the Senate after the election. Opinion polls yesterday showed their national support at 15 per cent for the Senate, double that for the Hanson party. The polls indicated a strong result for two key Democrats' Senate candidates: Aden Ridgeway, an aborigine who is running in New South Wales against David Oldfield, a One Nation candidate; and Rick Farley, a prominent advocate of Aboriginal rights.
If Mr Howard gets a second term, the whole core of his re-election policy could hit trouble in the Senate. He has staked his political future on tax reform, especially the introduction of a VAT-type consumption tax on almost everything, including food.
The Democrats have pledged to block the legislation unless Mr Howard removes the tax from food and books.
Mr Beazley, a product of New Labor in Australia from the 1980s, has campaigned against the consumption tax. He has returned to Old Labor priorities by promising more spending on health, schools, universities and job schemes. He, too, has staked his future on a pledge to bring down unemployment from 8 per cent to 5 per cent by 2004.
Labor has to win 27 seats to unseat the Howard coalition. It is daunting but not impossible. Mr Howard's leadership in his first term has been uninspiring, which helps to explain the coalition's massive slide in opinion poll popularity in less than one full term.
Mr Beazley, by contrast, has been transformed during the campaign from someone who was once perceived as a stop-gap Labor leader to a credible alternative prime minister.
The result will probably be known within hours of the polls closing at 6pm but with the result likely to be tight, counting could go on through the night or even for days.
Australia's leading newspapers probably reflected a national mood yesterday that may grudgingly give Mr Howard a second term. They praised Mr Howard's tax reform and said Labor was not ready to return to government. The Sydney Morning Herald described the Prime Minister as "no national leader" and a man "unable or unwilling to articulate his vision for the country". The Australian, Rupert Murdoch's national daily, praised Mr Beazley's leadership: "He has campaigned to magnificent effect."
Yet, despite the historical resonance of this election - the last scheduled poll of the 20th century - neither leader has talked about their "vision" for forthcoming events such as the referendum on a republic next year, and the centenary of nationhood in 2001.
It is almost as if Pauline Hanson, and her claims to champion "ordinary Australians" over the forces of "political correctness" and "political elites", has cast an uneasy pall over such discussion.
Pauline Hanson profile, Review, page 5Reuse content