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Street-fighter Keating lacks punch in debate

WITH opinion polls swinging against Australia's ruling Labor Party, Paul Keating, the Prime Minister, yesterday sought to revive his flagging campaign for the forthcoming general election in a televised debate with John Hewson, the opposition leader.

Mr Keating issued an impromptu challenge to Dr Hewson to confront him on television during a campaign walkabout. The challenge came as a surprise amid signs that the Prime Minister is deeply worried that, after less than a fortnight, his campaign for the 13 March election is in trouble.

An opinion poll published on Tuesday in The Australian, a national daily newspaper, for the first time pointed to a convincing lead by the opposition conservative Liberal-National coalition. It gave the opposition 53.5 per cent of voter preference against 46.5 per cent for the government, and was translated into a possible 31-seat majority for the coalition in parliament.

Mr Hewson was nominated as the preferred prime minister by 42 per cent of respondents, against 37 per cent for Mr Keating with 21 per cent still undecided. On the question of who voters thought would win the election, the margin was wider: 50 per cent for the opposition against 29 per cent for Labor.

With more than three weeks of campaigning to go, however, it is still too early to write Labor off. Another poll published on Wednesday in The Sydney Morning Herald indicated Mr Keating was still in the race when it suggested Labor was holding its ground in key marginal seats in Sydney and Melbourne.

Mr Keating is fighting to win his first election as Prime Minister, after ousting Bob Hawke as Labor leader, and to return Labor to an unprecedented fifth term after 10 years in power.

His campaign began falteringly on Sunday during a formal debate with Mr Hewson on Australian Broadcasting Corporation television. Both leaders were nervous, Mr Keating assuming the funereal tones of an undertaker and Mr Hewson appearing stilted as they fielded questions on the economy from journalists. The press generally awarded victory to Mr Hewson only by default.

Last night's unscheduled debate, aired in prime time by a commercial network, was not so constrained. Mr Keating's advisers had told him to ditch formality and return to his street-fighting mode, at which he excels. He obliged them last night, but the debate is unlikely to have enlightened viewers. It focused almost entirely on the centrepiece of Mr Hewson's policies, a VAT-type goods and services tax (GST) of 15 per cent.

Mr Keating attacked it as a 'monster' and 'the biggest life-style changing tax in Australian history'. He called Mr Hewson 'dear boy', while Mr Hewson described him as 'this fellow'. Despite his attempt to seize back the initiative through the debate, Mr Keating always looked on the defensive while Mr Hewson managed to relax and keep cool.

The campaign seems likely to be fought almost entirely on television, with at least one more debate scheduled and a series of aggressive advertisements launched by both parties on Wednesday.