Like the staged firing of a Saturn V rocket escaping its earthly bonds, Labor banked on the election to provide the final impetus needed to slip its heavy past and propel it skyward in 2013.
Just as the Saturn V rocket used for the Apollo missions achieved its critical velocity by progressively dumping depleted sections of itself as it climbed, Kevin Rudd, the recycled leader, welcomed the early boost offered by the NSW Right faction, but has since cast it off in the most public way.
Kevin Rudd. Photo: Getty Images
Toxic policies have also been jettisoned such as the carbon tax and a dysfunctional asylum seeker response, along with several unlucky candidates.
But while Earth's gravitational pull can be overcome with the controlled explosion of enough rocket fuel, Labor's six-year record of division and over-promising is not so readily denied.
Notwithstanding that an election had to be called this year anyway, there was always a danger for Rudd Mark II in going to the people before gaining a durable lead in the polls. Election campaigns, like rocket launches, have no reverse gear. Things end in one of two ways. Buoyed by the rate of his ascent in the weeks after June 26, Rudd and his boosters always believed he would climb yet further in the polls during the campaign proper.
Illustration: John Spooner.
In the narrowly focused context of the formal contest, they reasoned, Rudd would rise against a Liberal leader weighed down by his low popularity, half-baked policies on climate change and broadband and his reputation for old-world attitudes to women and same-sex marriage. But with the halfway point of this pantomime not far away, it is clear to the cooler heads in both camps that this race is already decided.
Tony Abbott's 52-48 per cent lead in last weekend's Fairfax-Nielsen poll is not unbridgeable for Labor but it is, in all likelihood, structural.
Consider the equation before voters. On one side is a two-term government racked by spectacular hatreds, dragged low by broken promises on carbon and the surplus, various program failures and a worsening economy. It campaigns for ''a new way'' but offers a recycled leader once dumped and then viciously traduced by his own side. This gaffer-taped operation is asking voters for another three years.
On the other side is an opposition famed for its negativity and woefully small-horizon thinking, yet uncannily united and consistent. Its leader, while prone to the odd verbal gaffe - his female candidates have ''sex appeal'' - enjoys unqualified support internally.
Having not trailed in the polls at any time since the last election, it has again edged ahead. Little wonder then that in a choice between Labor's incendiary internal chaos, which may or may not be behind it, and the Coalition's ground-dwelling but unified ordinariness, the latter is appealing to more voters.
The reality dawning on the ALP is that the apparent popularity of Rudd through July - which led some to enthuse it was more than a mere ''sugar hit'' - was simply jumping the gun.
The Fairfax-Nielsen poll confirmed the trend showing Labor's primary vote is once again dropping below its poor 2010 result after hitting 39 per cent last month. Equally concerning for Labor is that Rudd now trails the less popular Abbott on the question of who voters trust (47-40) and that Abbott is closing in as preferred prime minister.
Some of that may be attributable to Rudd being forced to play contact politics in the context of the campaign, which is not something voters always enjoy - witness the ''worm'' in election debates, which turns south every time someone goes on the attack.
But Rudd's problem is probably deeper than that. Beneath the headline numbers in the poll was one that should have rocked the Labor camp. Voters were asked who they expected to win - as distinct from who they intended to vote for. Abbott won that easily with 57 per cent picking him to just 31 per cent opting for Rudd.
''So what?'' you might say. ''Voters are not expert pundits, are they?'' Not as individuals, perhaps, but as a group it turns out, they're better. In fact, on this very question going back 15 years, the people have correctly picked the winner every time. Even in 1998, when Kim Beazley registered a higher popular vote, the punters correctly chose John Howard to win, albeit by a narrow 11 per cent margin. They were right again in 2001 by 13 per cent, 2004 by 47 per cent, 2007 by 42 per cent and even in 2010, when neither side secured a majority but Labor scraped through with a smidge above 50 per cent.
Apollo 13 is as famous for its amazing mission rescue as for its near disastrous failure. Mission control ordered the crippled vehicle to attempt a difficult slingshot pass around the dark side of the moon to acquire the momentum needed to get home. Perhaps Rudd in 2013 has a similar feat in mind. He will need that at least.
Mark Kenny is Fairfax Media's chief political correspondent.