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Gillard's lead vanishes as Australian election nears

Australian labour Party strategists regard Tony Abbott – the mercurial, gaffe-prone Opposition leader – as one of their greatest assets. Indeed, as the election campaign has gathered pace here, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has repeatedly sought to frighten voters by raising the spectre of Mr Abbott running the country.

Now, for the first time, there seems a real possibility of that coming true, following the 21 August election. Two opinion polls within three days have shown a slump in support for Labour, with Mr Abbott's conservative Coalition level-pegging or just ahead.

The polls, published after a disastrous week for Labour, have spooked the party and the PM. Yesterday Ms Gillard announced a change of tactics: no more "safe", stage-managed campaigning. "I'm going to throw that rule book out and really get out there," she vowed, saying she would "make sure the real Julia is well and truly on display".

The new approach prompted questions as to which Julia has been in charge since Ms Gillard deposed her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, five weeks ago. And her attempts to mingle with Sydney commuters last night were handicapped by a large media pack.

For his part, Mr Abbott has scarcely put a foot wrong during the campaign, but admits struggling to curb his tongue. Yesterday, following a slip-up, he apologised for dismissing notions of disabled access to cinemas as "waffle".

The Liberal Party's third leader since John Howard lost the 2007 election, Mr Abbott presents an intriguing mix. A staunch Catholic and social conservative, the 52-year-old is also a keen triathlete. His frequent appearances in the press wearing only a tight pair of swimming trunks (Australians call them "budgie smugglers") have become a standing joke.

Sometimes dubbed the "Mad Monk", due to having briefly trained for the priesthood, he fathered a child while at university – or so he believed. The baby was given up for adoption and grew up as Daniel O'Connor. Decades later Mr O'Connor, a sound recordist with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, sought out his natural parents. Mr Abbott embraced him, only to discover through DNA tests that he was not, in fact, his father.

Mr Abbott's main obstacle is winning over female voters. His hardline stance against abortion and same-sex marriage is not popular with women. As health minister in John Howard's government, he opposed the abortion drug RU486, triggering demonstrations featuring placards that demanded: "Get your rosaries off my ovaries." Earlier this year, he provoked outrage when he told a women's magazine he would advise his three daughters that their virginity was "the greatest gift that you can give someone... don't give it to someone lightly".

A former student boxer, Mr Abbott is facing the biggest fight of his life as he attempts to persuade Australians to give him the benefit of the doubt. Should he succeed, the government would be the first since 1932 to be thrown out after just one term.

Ms Gillard is still continuing to attack Mr Abbott's leadership credentials, a strategy described by the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday as "Target Tony".

At the weekend she highlighted his shifting views on key issues such as climate change, which he once described as "crap". At other times the Liberal leader has, variously, opposed setting a carbon price and supported an emissions trading scheme.

Labor is vulnerable on policy, too. Mr Rudd postponed the introduction of an emissions trading scheme; Ms Gillard has announced a “citizens’ assembly” to gauge community feeling on setting a carbon price. Mr Rudd ditched the overseas processing of asylum-seekers; Ms Gillard wants them to be processed in East Timor.

Neither proposition has, apparently, impressed the electorate.