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Kevin Rudd lifts performance against Tony Abbott during second national debate

Michelle Grattan /

The Rudd-Abbott face-off at the “people’s forum” was a much better contest than the tortured first encounter before a panel of journalists. The two engaged with each other; there was more spontaneity; the Brisbane forum contained some real “debate”.

They were closely matched but Kevin Rudd is likely to get more out of the clash because he put in a solid performance after a bad first half of the campaign. His team has been deeply worried that he has been nowhere near good enough – a poor showing tonight would have been a disaster.

That the opposition saw little in it for them seemed to be summed up by Liberal pollster Mark Textor’s tweet: “Draw. Yawn. No difference. No change”.

For Rudd, this was a pick-me-up, and one based on his punching through Labor’s negative line that Tony Abbott is preparing to slash health and education.

There was some speculation that Abbott’s interjection, “does this guy ever shut up?” was all about reinforcing the perception (and reality) that Rudd blathers.

To me, it just sounded ill-disciplined and rude, costing Abbott marks in an assessment of how he went. And Rudd’s riposte – “we’re having a discussion mate” – was effective. Abbott didn’t look too happy when questioned afterwards about his crack.

At times, they both went out of their way to be conspicuously civil to each other, like a couple of school boys whose mothers had warned them against misbehaviour. They even strained to note the odd point of agreement, to show how reasonable they could be.

Change the metaphor and you could see here a couple of boxers in the ring, with s few neat punches and counter punches.

Abbott thought he’d scored with his gibe, “Mr Rudd has just said that you can’t walk away from a price on carbon, but that’s precisely what you did Kevin, in April 2010”. But Rudd had the better of that exchange, hitting back with, “Tony, you voted it down twice in the Senate”.

Rudd didn’t miss any chance to conjure up the spectre of Abbott as the future ruthless cutter. “In this gathering tonight Mr Abbott, what people want to hear is where are you going to cut”, a question the opposition leader is not yet prepared to answer. This is at the heart of the Rudd campaign now, and it will take the next round of opinion polls to get an idea about whether it is taking hold.

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