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Howard seeks 5th term in Saturday's Australian elections

Polls suggest Australian Prime Minister John Howard's re-election is in doubt, despite a sound economy and near record-low unemployment rates under his leadership.

Polls suggest Australian Prime Minister John Howard's re-election is in doubt, despite a sound economy and near record-low unemployment rates under his leadership.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard, is shown campaigning at a shopping centre in Townsville, Australia, Friday. ((Paul Miller/Associated Press))

Howard, a Liberal who is seeking his fifth term in office, has been trailing in the race as the rival Labour party continues its ascent on a relatively smooth campaign.

Surveys suggest the Australian electorate, which heads to the polls Saturday, has grown tired of the 67-year-old Howard after his 11 years in office, with 50-year-old Labour Leader Kevin Rudd coming across as a more youthful, left-leaning successor.

Rudd, a former diplomat who speaks Mandarin Chinese and labels himself a "fiscal conservative," has been criticized as stiff and nerdish, but voters may warm to him because of his promise of change.

Rudd's image has remained unscathed, even escaping damage from revelations of a drunken late-night excursion to a Manhattan strip club in 2003.

Howard's campaign, on the other hand, has suffered a disastrous blow from a clumsy attempt to smear the Labour party.

Reporters this week battered the prime minister with questions over a scandal involving bogus campaign leaflets distributed by Liberal staffers. Among the claims asserted in the phony letters was one from a fictitious Muslim group that said the Labour party sympathized with terrorists.

"I've dissociated myself from it. I think it's stupid, it's offensive, it's wrong, it's untrue," Howard said. "I mean for heaven's sake, get a sense of proportion."

Howard has led Australia to a surging economy, thanks mainly to a resource-hungry China.

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