(Adds market, public reactions, Green protest)
By Rob Taylor
CANBERRA, Oct 15 Australian Prime Minister John Howard asked voters to recall his strong economic and security record on Monday as he and Labor opponent Kevin Rudd began a six-week election race, but another poll showed Howard in trouble.
Howard, who set a Nov. 24 election date on Sunday, began a round of television and radio interviews as a Newspoll in the Australian newspaper showed Rudd's Labor ahead of his coalition by a landslide-winning 56 percent to 44 percent.
"We'll have a tough campaign. It's going to be hard for the government to win again," said the prime minister of 11 years, as newspapers predicted his political annihilation.
"I believe we can win this," Howard told local television. "I believe that the Australian people will vote for strong leadership, they'll vote for the right leadership."
Howard, 68, is fighting to overturn a mood among voters for change despite the country enjoying a 10-year economic boom that has pushed unemployment to 33-year lows.
His government has delivered successive budgets in surplus and slashed taxes by A$110 billion ($100 billion), while Australia's benchmark stock index hit a record high on Monday, capping a rise this year of 19 percent.
But Howard's pitch of continued prosperity and more jobs has been blunted by a string of interest rate hikes to 6.5 percent, hurting bedrock conservative support in mortgage-saddled outer city suburbs, which both sides call "aspirational" belts.
The Newspoll showed support for Rudd, 50, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat who may bolster Australia's ties with China, was strengthening as preferred prime minister, with 48 percent of those surveyed believing he would do better than Howard.
The centrepiece of Rudd's campaign is a call for "New Leadership", stressing generational change over Howard and pledging sweeping reforms to health, education and controversial labour laws, while maintaining economic conservatism.
The election will determine the future of Australia's military contribution in Iraq and climate change stance, with Labor promising to bring home combat troops and sign the Kyoto Protocol. But the poll will be fought and won on domestic issues.
Rudd, who needs an imposing 16 more seats to take power in the 150-seat lower house, accused Howard of plotting "the mother of all negative campaigns" after the airing of conservative advertisements targeting Rudd's economic credentials.
An advertising blitz estimated to be worth A$50 million ($45 million) began on Sunday. Howard on Monday released a message on the video Web site YouTube promising a climate change policy balancing greenhouse gas cuts with continued economy growth.
Greens protesters unfurled a "41 days to sack Howard" banner outside the prime minister's harbourside Sydney residence.
Successive polls show as many as eight in 10 Australians are concerned about climate shift amid a prolonged drought expected to wipe 1 percent from the country's A$940 billion economy.
Howard's championing of 2006 labour laws taking aim at union powers have alienated many former supporters.
"If it wasn't for the industrial relations laws I'd vote for him again," young mother Renee Price told newspapers in the crucial swing seat of Dobell, north of Sydney.
"Employment policies, I don't think it's fair," said 22-year-old hairdresser Melissa Eaton.
Analysts predict election spending may hit a record as Howard, Australia's second-longest serving leader, seeks a fifth term before handing over to his deputy, Treasurer Peter Costello.
But markets were unmoved, with the Australian dollar touching 23-year highs despite Howard's warning of an economic slide if Rudd's Labor wins power.
"The prospect or even likelihood of a Labor government hasn't dissuaded any client from buying the Australian dollar, or participating in the bond market or having anything other than a favourable impression of the economic outlook for Australia," said Stephen Koukoulas, global strategist at TD Securities. (Additional reporting by Wayne Cole in SYDNEY) ($1=A$1.10)