Grattan on Friday: Rudd is a nimble, difficult opponent for the Liberals

Kevin Rudd, second time round, represents a new challenge for Tony Abbott. AAP/Alan Porritt

Julia Gillard said Tony Abbott was a misogynist. Now Kevin Rudd suggests he’s a political coward.

Prodding his opponent again to debate him, Rudd said it was time Abbott demonstrated he had “a bit of ticker”. “He’s the boxing blue, I’m the glasses-wearing kid in the library”.

Here are multiple messages. The “ticker” recycles a damaging gibe John Howard and others used so successfully against Kim Beazley, another leader Rudd vanquished.

The contrast of the boxer and the nerdy boy uses self-deprecation to put in the boot. The “boxer” conjures up aggression (remember that Abbott walk). But when it comes to substance, it’s the kid with the glasses and the books who has the answers.

The misogyny tag harmed Abbott, though not the Coalition vote. The “ticker” doubt could be more dangerous if it caught on because Rudd is already eating into the conservatives’ lead.

A week of Rudd has seen both the polls and the federal political battleground transformed.

The extent to which Rudd’s return has or will shift the fundamentals will be tested over coming months.

Rudd is convinced he can prevail and so are some of those around him. “The election is now ours to win”, says one. The Liberals know they have a fight on their hands but most still don’t believe they can lose. One says that in the end Abbott’s “authenticity” will stand him in good stead.

It has to be remembered that the hung parliament means that to stay in government Labor will have to pick up seats. The Coalition last week gained two seats when the country independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott announced they were retiring.

But a Liberal seasoned in campaigning says “it’s 50-50,” adding that Rudd is “setting the agenda – before the opposition was setting the agenda. Everything is up in the air.”

It’s not that the Rudd ascension has caught the Coalition by surprise. It knew the switch could happen and insisted it had a plan, which it no doubt did.

It’s rather that Rudd is a top-flight campaigner whom people like, and facing the reality of him is different from preparing for the possible eventuality. Even losing the security of the election date, after having it for so long, is disconcerting.

For the Liberals Rudd is a nimble, difficult opponent. Indeed, he can be seen as the boxer, jabbing his adversary, dancing round the ring, while Abbott is the nerd, trying to figure out how best to get this guy.

Abbott has the comfort that he bested PM Rudd Mark 1. But they never confronted one another at an election and the opposition leader, having watched how Rudd ruthlessly demolished Gillard, would be foolish not to be nervous.

The opposition leader has been highly effective, but he’s also been lucky. Rudd faltered through circumstances and his own flaws, not just under Abbott’s attack. Gillard fell victim to Rudd’s undermining and her mistakes, as well as to the assault from the other side.

Abbott faces a dual risk – he can afford neither to be flat-footed nor lured into throwing punches that miss their mark, which could give spectators the impression he’d lost the plot. Now, as never before, he needs the discipline to which he’s trained himself and urged on his colleagues.

PM Rudd Mark 2 is fundamentally the same leader as Mark 1 but he’s trying to present himself differently, to his colleagues as well as to the electorate.

He’s in constant motion, deciding, ordering, scheming and schmoozing; a dozen things on the go at once.

At yesterday’s news conference to announce intervention to clean up NSW Labor, he started by listing what he’s done this week: working with ministers to set up cabinet processes; phoning premiers, meeting business and ACTU leaders, launching the disability scheme, preparing to visit Jakarta.

But he keeps emphasising everything will be okay this time, because he’s consulting. Oh, and there are grey-beards in the office. His new chief of staff Jim Murphy, introduced to the media on Wednesday, is 61, and from the Treasury, a contrast to last time when he appointed a 29-year-old to the post.

Rudd’s action yesterday on the NSW ALP was driven by the need to try to limit the blowback from the appalling corruption; strategists also say voters like it when leaders campaign against their own party, a tactic used by former Queensland premier Peter Beattie.

Rudd has the great political skill of being naturally persuasive. His strengths also include the sunny demeanour and the slightly boyish quirks and phrases (which do however have their detractors). The “real Rudd” might be a more complicated picture, as we all know, but the electorate still laps him up.

A Labor MP campaigning this week in Queensland reports the reaction has been “very positive”, with people saying they would go back to voting Labor.

Laurie Ferguson, a Gillard man to the end, says that “indisputably there’s been a pick up”, which is more pronounced in the ethnic communities. There has also been a morale boost in the party rank and file. “Even though the party is not as pro-Kevin as the general public, they sense that in the electorate Labor has lifted and that lifts morale”.

But as he exhorts Australians to look to the future, Rudd can’t escape his past. Yesterday the Queensland coronial inquiry into three deaths in the home insulation “pink batts” program found that “undoubtedly, a major contributor to the failure to put in place adequate safeguards was the speed with which the program was conceived, designed and implemented”.

Rudd was in transit to Indonesia when the news came through; he immediately apologised when he reached Jakarta. “As the Prime Minister of the country, I am deeply sorry for what has occurred and of course, I apologise for these deaths given that it was a government program,” he said. Earlier the mother of Matthew Fuller, one of those killed, had told the ABC she’d just like Rudd to “disappear”.

Conceding mistakes is being deployed in relation to asylum seeker policy, Rudd’s most intractable policy challenge.

As the government looks desperately for ways to curb the arrivals, including by toughening the assessment regime, Rudd has admitted that it should have acted faster in 2009-10, when he was PM and the numbers were starting to build up.

Before long, however, the we-were-wrongs will have to be followed by policy tangibles in a range of areas, and that will run into budgetary difficulties and issues of credibility.

As one Labor source says, it will be “all about what happens when the new style hits the old problems”.