Despite months of opinion polls predicting an ALP victory, the eventual outcome of the federal election is likely to come down to just a handful of key marginal seats.
So which electorates will Mr Rudd and John Howard be focusing their efforts on as the ballot looms?
Kingston | Braddon | Bonner | Swan | Bass | Wentworth | Eden-Monaro | Bennelong | Ballarat
The South Australian electorate of Kingston is one of the most marginal in the country, held by the Liberals with a majority of just 0.1 per cent.
Voters in the constituency, which centres on the southern suburbs of Adelaide, are a notoriously fickle bunch, having unseated their incumbent MP no less than seven times in the past 41 years.
The current representative, former police sergeant and sports manager Kym Richardson won the battle in 2004, snatching the seat from Labor’s Dave Cox, but is likely to struggle to retain it this year.
He will face off against psychologist and former Student Union president Amanda Rishworth, who previously stood as a candidate in the seat of Fisher at South Australia’s 2006 state elections.
The Tasmanian seat of Braddon has been much in the news of late, thanks to the row over the proposed downgrading of the Mersey Hospital.
John Howard’s surprise announcement that the federal government would take control of the hospital, at LaTrobe, near Devonport — to prevent it losing many of its facilities to nearby Burnie Hospital — opened up a new front in the battle for the north-west coast of Tasmania.
The move was welcomed by many Devonport residents, who did not want services at their local hospital cut in favour of the Burnie unit.
However, critics of Mr Howard’s takeover plan, which they say is not an efficient use of taxpayers’ money, have condemned it as a cynical attempt to buy votes.
Braddon is currently held by the Liberals’ Mark Baker, a former footballer and financial planner, who won it from Labor in 2004.
Labor would need a swing of just 1.1 per cent to grab it back – their hopes rest with ex-teacher and MP Sid Sidebottom, who held the seat from 1998 to 2004.
The blame for Mr Sidebottom’s unexpected defeat at the last election was laid squarely at the feet of then party leader Mark Latham, whose controversial forestry policy found plenty of opponents in a region dominated by the logging, pulp and paper industry.
Bayside Bonner is one of a string of seats in his native Queensland in which Labor Leader Kevin Rudd is hoping to gain control.
The party holds six of the state’s 28 lower house seats, but will need to take several more if Mr Rudd is to make it to the Lodge.
As the most marginal constituency on the list, Bonner is Labor’s top priority in Queensland.
The electorate, named for Neville Bonner, Australia’s first Aboriginal senator, was won by Liberal Ross Vasta at the last election.
But with a margin of just 0.5 per cent, Mr Vasta was always going to have a fight on his hands.
The MP and former restaurant manager was recently cleared of any wrongdoing as part of a police investigation into the alleged misuse of parliamentary entitlements.
His main opponent at this year’s poll will be Labor’s Kerry Rea, a Brisbane city councillor.
“Here, as in many other electorates, it’s likely that issues such as industrial relations, economic management, health and education will decide the election result,” she told SBS.
“But it’s clear that for many people here in Bonner, they won’t make a final decision on how they’ll vote until much closer to polling day.”
Labor will be hoping that large numbers of long-term Liberal voters switch their allegiance by the time the election rolls around.
Estate agent Jan Hemphill is considering doing just that. “A part of me still wants the stability that they’ve offered, but there’s also a little bit that knows probably that the way it’s going to go is it’s going to be Labor, because people are just going, ‘Well, let’s try something else, they’ve been in long enough’.”
Others, though, aren’t so sure. Former Labor voter Bruce Myers says he is tempted to stick with the status quo.
“From my point of view, things are going alright, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I suppose.”
John Howard’s Liberals will be hoping their emphasis on the status quo, and on the country’s economic strength, is enough to keep them in power.
If they are to stay there, they will be looking to take control of a number of seats currently held by Labor with small majorities, in order to offset any potential gains by the opposition. Top of the list will be Swan, in Western Australia, a riverside constituency across the water from central Perth.
Once held by retiring Labor MP and ex-party leader Kim Beazley, the current incumbent is Kim Wilkie, a former farmer and prison officer, who held the seat by just 104 votes in 2004.
“I don’t feel any greater pressure than previously,” Mr Wilkie insists. “But you’re always under huge pressure to make sure we do everything we possibly can,” he told News Limited newspapers.
The Liberals’ candidate Steve Irons is an ex-AFL player-turned-businessman who is under no illusions as to the challenge he faces.
“It will be extremely tough,” he told News Limited. “But I don’t mind a tough fight.”
Together with Braddon, Bass is a key reason why Tasmanian politics look set to have a huge impact on the outcome of the 2007 ballot.
Bass, which covers the island’s north-eastern coast as well as the city of Launceston, is home to much of the island’s controversial logging industry.
Following a recent decision by federal Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull, it will soon also be home to a brand new pulp mill.
Even without the Gunns row, Bass is a marginal – and changeable – electorate, having changed hands at four of the past five elections.
However, the government’s backing of the mill has polarised voters in the region, with many residents opposed to it on environmental grounds, while others support it because of the jobs it could provide, and the financial impact it is expected to have on the area.
Currently held by Liberal MP and family values campaigner Michael Ferguson, the former Deputy Mayor of Launceston Jodie Marshall will contest the seat for Labor.
The pulp mill row could have a huge impact outside of Tasmania too, if it ends up costing Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull the previously safe Liberal seat of Wentworth, in Sydney.
Wentworth, which centres on one of the city’s most affluent areas, has been held by Mr Turnbull since the last election, but boundary changes and voter redistribution mean a swing of just 2.5 per cent would see it fall to Labor.
Chief among the former lawyer’s worries will be the toll his decision to give Gunns the green light to build the Tamar Valley mill could take on his image among the electorate’s environmentally-friendly eastern suburbanites.
Prominent anti-pulp mill protester Geoff Cousins has threatened to take Mr Turnbull on on home ground over the issue.
Another topic which threatens to derail the minister’s hopes of re-election is that of gay partnerships.
Wentworth, Australia’s smallest electorate, is home to a thriving gay community, and Mr Turnbull’s failure to convince his Liberal party colleagues to formally recognise same-sex relationships could have a damaging impact on his voter appeal.
If that is the case, then challenger George Newhouse, Mayor of Waverley, could become the area’s first ever Labor MP.
Come election night, all eyes will be on the New South Wales bellwether of Eden-Monaro for clues to the voters’ verdict.
For decades, the “seat of power” currently represented by the Liberals’ Gary Nairn has been won by the party which went on to clinch government. Eden-Monaro, which covers an area of 31,000 sq km in the state’s south-east, is home to farmers, loggers, retirees, tourism operators and public servants working in nearby Canberra.
Both John Howard and Kevin Rudd made visits to the sprawling electorate in September during the “phoney campaign”, and Labor candidate Mike Kelly has clocked up more than 13,000 km meeting potential constituents since announcing his candidacy.
Polling suggests many voters in Eden-Monaro could change their allegiance this time around.
“I voted for John Howard when he came in, and in a few elections after that, but I am disillusioned with him and his government and I think we need to move on,” says Cooma tobacconist Chris Reeves.
But the seat is not a shoo-in for Kevin Rudd, with many workers in Queanbeyan and Bombala blaming state Labor’s logging policies for the loss of jobs in the forestry industry.
“If this mill doesn’t go ahead, Labor won’t get a look-in here again, because it was the state Labor government that closed down the hardwood industry,” said Bombala newsagent Dan Knight.
Labor would need a swing of at least 3.3 per cent to take the seat from the Liberals, but its importance as a barometer of voters’ intentions over the past 35 years mean it is likely to feature heavily on both parties’ campaign trails.
If John Howard needed a reminder that this year’s election battle was getting painfully close, he would not have to go far to find one.
The Prime Minister’s own seat of Bennelong, which he has held since 1974, and which has been a solid Liberal electorate since its creation in 1949, is now officially a marginal constituency – Labor would need a swing of just 4.1 per cent to take it off his hands. That turnaround from safe seat to potential liability has come about as a result of boundary changes and voter redistribution which have seen the northern Sydney electorate shift west along the Parramatta River, taking in more and more Labor-leaning areas at the expense of Liberal enclaves.
Mr Howard’s unswerving support for US President George W Bush and the Iraq War, and, at 68, his age, are both factors thought to count against him in the minds of the electorate.
His recent admission that, if elected, he is unlikely to serve a full term and would instead hand the reigns of power to Treasurer Peter Costello may also put voters off.
Labor’s adoption of a star candidate in the form of award-winning ex-ABC journalist Maxine McKew has only highlighted the precariousness of Mr Howard’s position.
He is now left facing the distinct possibility that – whether or not his party retains power – he may lose his own seat, making him the first PM to do so since Stanley Bruce in 1928.
If the Liberal party can win marginal seats like Victoria’s Ballarat, John Howard has a much greater chance of keeping his job as Prime Minister.
A classic swing seat, Ballarat is currently held by Labor’s Catherine King, but a swing of about 2.3 per cent would see it fall into Liberal hands.
The party’s candidate is local businesswoman – and former Nationals member — Sam McIntosh, who believes her ties to the town make her the ideal representative.
“I’ve lived and worked in Ballarat for the last 16 years, I’ve lived my whole life in the western region. I’ve grown up here, so has my husband – we know the electorate,” she told SBS.
Water looks set to be one of the area’s dominant issues.
The drought saw nearby Lake Wendouree dry up to little more than a mudflat before recent winter rains, and residents believe Canberra should be doing more to secure the water supply.
“It is a marginal seat, and the people of Ballarat expect that people stand up to what we want,” said acting mayor Wayne Rigg.
“At the moment we are seeing the Labor party stand up for us and the Liberal member toeing the party line, and there is a big difference between the two of those.”
On the streets of Ballarat, once home to Australia’s second Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, opinions are divided.
“I desperately want to see Howard beaten,” one local voter told SBS. “He is a war criminal. They’ve killed a million people in Iraq.”
“John Howard, I think he’s doing a very good job for Australia,” said another resident. “I won’t be changing my vote.”
As things stand, opinion polls suggest Labor is likely to hold on to Ballarat, but Kevin Rudd may want to pay the town a visit or two, just to be sure.