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Prime Minister John Howard on Sunday called general elections for Nov. 24 that will decide the fate of his 11-year reign and whether Australia will start bringing home its troops from Iraq.
Howard, Australia's second-longest serving leader, faces a tough battle to win a fifth term in office against Labor Party opposition leader Kevin Rudd, a Chinese-speaking former diplomat who for months has held a commanding lead over the conservative Howard in opinion polls.
Howard's announcement marks the start of the official run-up to the elections, though both sides have been campaigning unofficially for weeks.
With Australia's coal and mineral-driven economy booming thanks to voracious demand from China, India and elsewhere, the workplace, social affairs and global warming are shaping a the key policy battle grounds.
Australia's deployment in Iraq is a background issue, but an important one because it is an area of clear difference and affects Australia's most important foreign relationship - with the United States.
The leaders' personalities are also key.
Both Howard and Rudd are bookish, with middle-class backgrounds and long records of public service that each hopes will inspire trust and an image of steadfastness among voters.
Rudd, 50, has campaigned hard in recent months to project an image as a new-generation leader, a My Space account-owning Web surfer who understands the challenge of climate change.
Howard, who at 68 is Australia's second longest-serving leader, is a reformed global warming skeptic who claims credit for an unprecedented 15-year economic surge. His mantra to voters has become: changing government means risking prosperity.
Win or lose, it will be Howard's last election. Under pressure from within his own party, Howard has promised to retire during the next term if he is re-elected, with longtime Treasure Peter Costello his nominated successor.