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Poll fuels Rudd talk

Why did Labor's poll recovery, turn sour? Nielsen's chief pollster looks at when things went wrong for the government.

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Julia Gillard enters a politically dangerous last sitting week before the May budget, with support for her government stuck in the basement and her standing with voters losing ground to a more popular Tony Abbott.

A sharp drop in support for the ALP in February, which sent shockwaves through the party and fuelled leadership anxiety, is now showing signs of becoming entrenched with less than six months to go to the federal election on September 14.

The latest Age/Nielsen poll has confirmed Labor's share of the primary vote is languishing at a landslide-losing 31 per cent - up a statistically insignificant 1 point from February.

This compares with support for the Coalition being unchanged on 47 per cent.

The telephone survey of 1400 people, taken from Thursday, March 14, to Saturday, March 16, also showed Ms Gillard's satisfaction rating continuing to drop and Mr Abbott's continuing to improve with the Opposition Leader now preferred prime minister by 49 per cent of voters against Ms Gillard on 43 per cent - down 2 points.

The two-party-preferred split sits at 44 per cent for Labor and 56 per cent for the Coalition, which represents a 6 per cent swing to the Coalition from the 50/50 result in 2010 and would leave the ALP electorally devastated if carried through to the election.

With some Labor MPs and ministers favouring a late leadership change back to Kevin Rudd or perhaps a third candidate, the poll showed Mr Rudd was easily the most popular choice among voters for prime minister, out-pointing Ms Gillard 2 to 1, with 62 per cent up against the PM's 31 per cent.

However, low voter enthusiasm for three other Labor leadership possibilities - cabinet ministers Bill Shorten, Greg Combet, and Bob Carr - suggest the party would not improve its September chances with any of them installed as prime minister. Of the three, the Foreign Minister, Senator Carr, had the most support with 41 per cent to Ms Gillard on 50 per cent.

Pollster John Stirton said that this showed voters were taking the view that if it is not to be Kevin Rudd in charge, they would prefer no change at all.

On the separate index of approval ratings, 38 per cent approved of the way Ms Gillard was handling her job compared to 58 per cent who disapproved. This put her net approval rating at negative 20 per cent, a deterioration of four points in a month.

Mr Abbott's net approval rating was half as bad on negative 10 per cent (an improvement of three points) with 43 per cent approving his performance and 53 per cent disapproving.

The shifting approval ratings and the preferred prime minister findings confirm that neither leader is particularly popular with voters, but that sentiment may be moving in the direction of the alternative prime minister, Mr Abbott.

The poll comes as dispirited Labor MPs began filing into Canberra on Sunday hopeful, if not confident, that a series of populist appeals by Ms Gillard in recent weeks - including a new campaign against foreign workers, and moves to protect penalty rates - might have begun turning things around.

Yet the poll suggested that Ms Gillard's tough rhetoric had failed to spark a recovery.

Labor's one-point improvement in the primary vote came from the Greens, which dropped one point to 10 per cent.

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