Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.

Julia Gillard, the commander-in-chief versus Tony Abbott, the challenger.

LABOR wants to make the next election a presidential choice, American style - Julia Gillard, the commander-in-chief, versus the challenger, Tony Abbott. Forget policies, this is about personality.

As Barack Obama squares off against Mitt Romney across the Pacific overnight, Australian politicos have watched and learned. Reducing the contest to a simple equation focuses voter's minds: largely brush aside the party differences, so the thinking goes, and make it a contest about who should be in charge. People might not much like Gillard, but asked to choose Abbott instead, enough doubt creeps in.

It is a small window to prise open and escape a burning building, but Labor's presidential strategy is clearly thought to be the best hope to cling to office.

The relentless exploitation of Abbott's character is intended to amplify the choice - sexist, hothead, stuck in the past. Unpopular though Gillard may be, in this battle she has a powerful advantage only properly deployed in recent months - as Prime Minister, her words are naturally delivered by loud hailer. She sets the agenda, the media follow. The challenger is left to respond on terms set by the incumbent.

Senior members of PM's office have developed ties with the Obama campaign team and are watching for lessons to apply in Australia. Ben Hubbard, Gillard's chief of staff, slipped out of the country in September to attend the Democratic convention in North Carolina and talk strategies with those running a $1 billion campaign for the White House. This followed an encounter in Chicago in May, when Gillard attended NATO talks on Afghanistan, and her team took time behind the scenes at Obama's re-election HQ.

Where Gillard's team has been most interested in the US is the experience of the Tea Party movement. The extreme positions adopted by the far right in America have perplexed mainstream Republicans but also given succour to the Romney campaign, distracting Obama and sowing doubts about his legitimacy and his policies. Labor could claim the conservatives in Australia are using similar proxy tactics.

Paradoxically, Abbott's response to the axing of Kevin Rudd has helped create presidential dynamics in Australia. Abbott seized on the ''midnight knock on the door'' to cast Gillard's ousting of Rudd as an act of treason, ignoring the fact prime ministers are elected by parties in Australia, not by voters. His success has been to paint Gillard as untrustworthy, a judgment compounded by her broken promise on the carbon tax. And while the evidence to date suggests Abbott will ride into The Lodge, personality attacks are turning back on him.

The American colonisation of Australian politics is hardly new, nor is the heavy reporting on leaders. Go back to the early 1970s, when Gough Whitlam fought Billy McMahon, and the presidential character of political debates was evident. Press gallery harumph Alan Ramsey remarked at the time that both men were ''extremely image conscious'' and ''their personalities and political identities probably will have more impact of the election's outcome than the politics of the parties they lead''.

But the presidential phenomenon in Australia is even stronger now. How can we escape it when American news programs are the preferred model for the local TV airwaves, a parade of strong opinions from people who find it easier and cheaper to judge character than delve into the detail of policy? Public opinion polls ask people to rank the preferred prime minister and rate a leader's attributes, from trustworthiness to arrogance. Fuelling the focus, big announcements are almost always delivered by the leader, the responsible portfolio minister stood alongside at the media conference like a potted plant for decoration.

A deep interest in US politics has long been a feature among Australian politicians and it is curious that Britain, with a political system and culture closer to Australia's, does not command the same interest. The ban on political ads on TV in the UK might be part of the reason, fundamentally changing the nature of a campaign. But for political junkies, the non-stop political cycle in America of congressional elections, primaries and presidential races is also far more enticing. The question is, what are the costs of applying lessons from America at home?

Most obviously, the one-person-band can diminish the standing of the frontbench - or allow weak links to muddle on. But perhaps more importantly, local members are almost totally eclipsed, even though it is their name on the ballot. Perhaps the cynicism infecting Australian politics is a bug picked up travelling overseas.

Daniel Flitton is senior correspondent.

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