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TOKYO (Reuters) - With less than two weeks left to the December 16 election, Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is displaying the same quiet determination that helped him clinch a breakthrough deal on his controversial plan to raise the country's sales tax.
It seems to be working.
Noda, who once likened himself to an unattractive but hard-working "dojo" bottom-feeding fish, is just behind opposition leader Shinzo Abe in individual ratings. His Democratic Party of Japan is also narrowing an albeit large gap with Abe's Liberal Democratic Party.
"I'm determined to do my utmost and fight to the bitter end ... so that the Democratic Party can stay in power," Noda told reporters on Monday, the eve of the official kick-off of campaigning in voting districts.
A comeback from behind would be nothing short of a political miracle. But a solid election result could keep Noda's party in play since the vote is unlikely to produce a clear winner, thus requiring some form of a coalition to be formed.
Last week Noda, 55, became the longest serving Japanese prime minister since Junichiro Koizumi stepped down in 2006 after five years in office - a testimony to his staying power, grit and underrated political acumen.
When Noda took over in September 2011 as Japan's sixth prime minister in five years, few thought he would last more than a year or that he would accomplish much.
But the former finance minister and career lawmaker not only hung in there, he also pushed through a plan to raise the sales tax to help fund the swelling social security costs of the ageing nation -- the most significant move in years to pare back rising public debt levels.
Successive leaders had shied away from tackling the politically hot issue for fear of a voter backlash.
He accomplished the feat despite being dealt a weak hand. The party was torn by internal divisions and it lacked control of parliament after losing upper house elections in 2010.
"He's got a major change in the tax system under his belt and anyone who does objective analysis has to give him credit for that," said Jesper Koll, head of equity research at JPMorgan Chase in Tokyo.
In style, the workmanlike Noda is nothing like the charismatic Koizumi, but his aides have said he showed similar toughness and willingness to take risks.
Noda also appeals to the public with his "everyman" image. As the son of a military man, he is not one of Japan's "hereditary politicians" like Abe, who is a former prime minister and the grandson of a premier.
The black-belt judo practitioner and a fan of pro wrestling, who honed his political oratory skills on a commuter train platform, said last week he was glad to be back on the campaign trail and connecting with people.
"I stood at curb side in front of a train station in Tama and gave a political speech, which is something I hadn't done in quite some time," Noda wrote in his blog. "For me, who for 25 years held a microphone for three hours every morning in Funabashi appealing to the passersby, I feel that I came back to my roots in spirit."
But while Noda showed that it was possible to break Japan's persistent policy gridlock and get things done, he and his party have paid a steep price.
His dogged pursuit of the tax plan and compromises with the opposition deepened divisions within his party that led to a split and the desertion of dozens of lawmakers.
Some say the Democrats became a smaller, but more coherent party after its former leader and Noda's nemesis, Ichiro Ozawa, left with a group of followers angered by the tax hike plan.
Noda's supporters also point out that the Democrats were bound to disappoint after they swept to power in 2009, riding a wave of public discontent over more than half a century of nearly unbroken rule by Abe's party, the LDP.
They argue that some campaign promises were unrealistic to start with, while others had to be dropped after Japan suffered the double hit of the global financial crisis and the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Critics, however, blame Noda for reneging on the Democrats' core commitment to take power away from bureaucracy and for ending up in style and content a lot like the long-dominant LDP.
"He brought the technocrats back to the table. The definition of national interests under Noda went back to Kasumigaseki (government district) and the bureaucrats," said Koll.
In fiscal matters, the Democrats have adopted a tax hike stance long pushed by Finance Ministry mandarins and are now portraying themselves as a party of restraint and reason, in contrast with the big-spending promises of the LDP.
Critics also charge that Noda, which one commentator quipped is the best prime minister the LDP never had, betrayed Japanese voters by pushing his party to the right of the political spectrum.
"The change of direction he pursued negated the change of the government in 2009," said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano. "He left voters with very few options to choose from."
Additional reporting by Linda Sieg; Writing by Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Neil Fullick