Australian PM, only 3 weeks on the job but already polling well, calls August elections

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who called elections Saturday just three weeks after taking power, was once considered too far left to win a national vote. But polls and analysts say she has as good a chance of wooing the Australian public as her opponent: He was long thought too conservative to appeal to the mainstream.

Buoyed by strong support for her new leadership — she grabbed power in a surprise ruling Labor Party coup — Gillard scheduled elections for Aug. 21.

Gillard has hit the ground running, attempting to steer a new course in key policy areas, saying the government had "lost its way" under her predecessor, Kevin Rudd.

"We would go into our second term with some lessons learnt," Gillard told reporters at Parliament House. "We would be able to implement and deliver programs differently than we have in the past."

Opinion polls give Labor a slight advantage but predict a tight race against a resurgent conservative opposition Liberal Party led by Tony Abbott.

The two opponents could not be more different and each may struggle to win over the political middle ground essential to an Australian election victory.

Gillard, Australia's first female premier, is a Welsh-born atheist with a common law partner. She says she chose career over children — a decision for which she has been criticized by political opponents as unfit for leadership — and repeatedly denies that the left-wing politics of her 20s had ever been communist.

Abbott is a staunch Roman Catholic social conservative, married with three daughters, who was recently rebuked by Gillard for cautioning Australia's young women against having sex before marriage. Gillard advised him to mind his own business.

"They're coming from backgrounds where Tony Abbott probably worries that people think he's a bit too conservative, and Julia Gillard worries that people think she is too left wing, and they're both heading for the middle ground," said John Warhurst, an Australian National University political scientist. "I think at the extremes you'll get a little bit of support drifting to both of them and it might cancel each other out."

Analysts say Gillard's decision to capitalize on her early positive opinion polls and opposition disarray rather than take more time to establish herself in the job is a risky strategy. Warhurst said Gillard had effectively surrendered the incumbent advantage.

"You've now got a new prime minister of three weeks against a new opposition leader of eight months — it's a remarkable turn of events," he said.

While both have changed their parties' direction, each still maintains support for major foreign policy issues, including Australia's deployment of 1,550 troops to Afghanistan.

The election is likely to hang on a series of tough issues — climate change, asylum seekers and record-high public debt — on which the two have taken divergent positions.

Gillard has attempted to stem a surge in asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat — more than 4,000 in the past year — by asking its tiny neighbor East Timor to host a U.N.-endorsed regional refugee processing hub.

Labor has condemned a Liberal plan to deter asylum seekers by introducing temporary protection visas, which would enable the government to send refugees back to their homelands if conditions there improved.

Gillard was deputy to Rudd, who became a Labor hero when he led the party to a crushing election victory in November 2007 after 11 years in opposition.

But he lost support with a series of unpopular political moves earlier this year, including shelving a key pledge to make major industries pay for the carbon gas they emit. Gillard has yet to announce a new Labor policy on reducing Australia's carbon gas emissions, which are among the world's highest per capita.

Under Abbott, the Liberals abandoned their polluter-pays policy and proposed that Australia cut greenhouse emissions by paying major polluters taxpayer-funded incentives. No penalties would be imposed for failure to reduce emissions under his plan.

Abbott has led an attack on the government over its 52 billion Australian dollar ($45 billion) economic stimulus spending that helped Australia scrape through the global economic recession with a single quarter of mild economic contraction in late 2008.

Abbott told a conservative party meeting in Queensland, a key state to the outcome of the next election, the government has wasted money and the leadership change from Rudd to Gillard was a "seamless transition from incompetence to incompetence."

Gillard has promised to return Australia to a surplus budget in three years.

Labor currently holds 83 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives, where parties form government. But it lacks a majority in the Senate, where it holds only 32 of the 76 seats.