Kevin Rudd has used the second Leaders' debate to breathe life into his flagging election campaign, attacking Tony Abbott's record as health minister and depicting the Liberal's proposed paid parental leave scheme as unaffordable.
Openly admitting that Mr Abbott was ''way ahead in the polls,'' Mr Rudd paced before the Brisbane crowd and repeatedly accused Mr Abbott of hiding future cuts from voters.
The issue prompted one of the most spirited exchanges of the night as Mr Abbott appeared to lose his composure briefly, as he interjected, ''Does this guy ever shut up?''
Mr Rudd responded that such statements were the standard response to losing an argument.
In an early sign that the Labor leader needed a punchier performance than he had put in at the first debate nearly a fortnight ago, Mr Rudd capitalised first on the more flexible format of the people's forum in Brisbane's Broncos Leagues Club to accuse Mr Abbott of having ''ripped'' $1 billion from hospital budgets and of planning further cuts. It was a charge Mr Abbott flatly denied after using his opening remarks to remind voters of Labor's record in office.
''I'll talk a lot about deficit, sure, the fiscal deficit, but in the end, the biggest deficit we've got right now is the trust deficit,'' Mr Abbott said.
Carrying the greater burden to rescue his election hopes, Mr Rudd was aided by a series of politically convenient questions from among the 100-strong audience of swinging voters.
These ranged from policies to homelessness, paid parental leave, the wisdom of ongoing assistance for the car industry, conservation, and gay marriage.
With the two leaders representing a pair of televangelists, their microphones pressed to their chins, the exchanges became heated on several occasions, reaching a climax as an argument over costings dragged on.
''You're saying that an allocation of $75,000 for six months for a person on $150,000 a year can be compared somehow to an age pensioner on $19,000 a year, not six months,'' Mr Rudd charged.
In response to a question from a man who worried that Mr Abbott might revive WorkChoices, if elected, Mr Abbott repeated his industrial relations mantra from the election campaign of 2010.
''I was one of two cabinet ministers who opposed it,'' he said of the Howard government's WorkChoices. ''That particular policy is, to use the famous phrase, dead, buried and cremated. It is never going to happen, we are not going to go back to the past. We learnt our lesson.''
''We lost an election on it and the last thing sensible political parties do is go back to policies that cause them to lose elections.''
Polled after the debate, the 105-member audience gave Mr Abbott a narrow win, 37 votes to Mr Rudd's 35. But 33 people - nearly a third of those at the club - were undecided.
After the debate, Mr Abbott would not drawn on who won the contest, but said he thought both leaders had a ''good hit out''. ''I'm not going to presume to make that judgment I'll leave the public and voters to decide who they thought did better tonight,'' he told reporters.
When asked if his ''shut up'' comment was ''too feisty'', the Opposition Leader replied: ''Well, look, I think [Mr Rudd] set out to be pretty feisty tonight. I think he set out to try be a little bit confrontational. He was certainly doing plenty of talking. I guess that's his way.''
Speaking to ABC Radio on Thursday morning, Labor Senator Penny Wong said that Mr Abbott had snapped with his ''shut up'' comment.
''It was interesting for a moment to see him snap and see the real Tony Abbott,'' she said.
The Finance Minister said that Mr Abbbott was ''pretty aggro type of bloke'' but that he kept that under wraps.
But Liberal frontbencher George Brandis said on Thursday that Mr Abbott had summed up what lots of people had been thinking.
''I think what Tony Abbott was expressing then (was) what people were feeling in a million households across the length and breadth of Australia,'' Senator Brandis told Sky News.
''I think it was one of the great moments in the history of Australian leaders debates.
Asked if it was a loss of composure, Senator Brandis said: ''Get real.''
Leaving the Broncos League Club, Mr Rudd had only a short assessment for reporters about the people's forum: ''It's all good for democracy, that's what I say.''
When asked if she had been impressed, his wife Therese Rein replied: ''I'm always impressed with Kevin.''
With nine seats in Queensland held by the Coalition on margins under 5 per cent, both sides agree the Sunshine State holds the key to the 2013 election outcome. This is why both leaders will officially launch their campaigns from Brisbane in the coming week.
Galaxy pollster David Briggs said the 100-person hand-picked audience was chosen from among the 15,000 interviews conducted as part of election surveying.
with Judith Ireland
WHAT THEY SAID
Public service cuts
Abbott: 'So let's not please say that I'm somehow Mr Cut, cut, cut because I want to be Mr Build,build, build so we have more jobs, jobs, jobs.'
Rudd: 'Mr Abbott seems to be suff ering from just a little bit of amnesia. When he was Health Minister he cut $1 billion from the public hospitals budget of Australia. That affects every hospital in the country.'
Rudd: 'So in other words, what happened was the banks came to government as the ultimate insurer and said "Would I do that?" It's a scary thing signing off those kind of guarantees.'
Abbott: 'let's not try to justify a tax grab now with reference to the global financial crisis four and a half years ago.'
Immigration and detention
Rudd: 'The foundation of the international protection of asylum seekers is the convention and no government of which I'm Prime Minister is ever going to withdraw from the refugees convention. It's an absolute fundamental.'
Abbott: 'This is a tough problem, it is a tough problem, but tough governments can deal with it and a tough government did deal with it.
Abbott: 'I regard myself as a conservationist. As a teenager I was a bushwalker.'
Rudd: 'You can't walk away from a price on carbon. The rest of the world including China is moving in that direction as well.'
Rudd: 'My view and a position I took some time ago is to properly reflect what I think is the dignity belonging to all people irrespective of their sexuality Australia should move towards laws for the secular State which support marriage equality.
Abbott: 'All I can do is candidly and honestly tell people what my view is. I support the traditional definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. I know that others dispute this, because I have lots of arguments inside my own family on this subject now.