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Australia Votes in Key National Election - 2004-10-09

Polls have opened in Australia's general election. The campaign between the ruling conservatives and the left-of center opposition has been fought largely on domestic issues, such as the economy, health care and public education.

This election is between a seasoned conservative, Prime Minister John Howard, and a combative opposition leader, Mark Latham.

At 65 years of age, Mr. Howard, who leads the rightwing coalition of Liberals and Nationals, is seeking a fourth consecutive term in office. His pitch to voters has concentrated on two areas; economic prosperity and a decisive hand in matters of national security.

Challenger Mr. Latham argues that Mr. Howard's policies have made the country less secure and that his Labor Party would be best suited to protect the economy.

Opinions at polling stations are varied. "Personally, myself, I would rather support Labor than the Liberals. I don't agree with the way the Liberals have handled the war on terrorism and I certainly don't agree with their policy on it," said one man.

But other voters want to stick with Mr. Howard, given the years of strong economic growth under his government. "I wouldn't go past Howard. He's done a marvelous job in Australia. You've only got to look at the record over eight years. It's marvelous what he's done, turned the country right around," said a woman who supports the prime minister.

One issue for many voters is Mr. Latham's youth - he is 43 years old, and has never held a senior position in a government. "John Howard's got a lot more credibility," said one man. "I like the fact that Mark Latham's young and stuff but experience counts for a lot in an election."

Some, however, worry about Mr. Howard's age, and the eight years he has spent in office. "I just think Howard's had his time. I think he's getting stale," said a woman voter.

The key battlegrounds in this Australia election are the economy, especially interest rates, as well as public health care, the environment and education.

When it comes to Iraq, Mr. Howard - a key U.S ally in the war on terror - has insisted that the 850 Australian troops there now will stay until their job is done.

Importantly, there have been no Australian combat casualties in the Gulf. Still, the opposition has described the deployment as a foreign policy disaster. Mr. Latham pledges to bring the troops home by Christmas, and concentrate on making Australia and Southeast Asia safe from terrorists.

Fluctuating opinion polls in the final days of campaigning have made the result unpredictable. However, many observers have said John Howard is the clear favorite to win another term.