STRESSING the need for unity during his address to his troops on Tuesday, Tony Abbott told the MPs that if they ever needed to get a message to him, they should just call direct - he would always pick up his voicemail and ring back.
Maybe someone will call with a good idea on how best to handle what's not just his and the Coalition's loss of momentum, but signs of erosion.
This week's Newspoll brought another unsettling moment for Abbott, showing a 4-point slide in the Coalition vote (to 41 per cent), a 50-50 two-party result, his personal unpopularity at 58 per cent, and Julia Gillard with an 11-point lead as better PM. The second of the past three Newspolls to be on 50-50, it couldn't be dismissed as a ''rogue''. It has to be hard for Liberals to explain how Abbott is rating 5 points behind Gillard (30-35 per cent) when people are asked how satisfied they are with their respective performances. After all, the Coalition's argument is that she is the worst PM since Adam was a boy. Some Liberals are now saying that Abbott, never personally popular, is a drag on the Coalition vote.
Government strategists have had the goal of making Labor ''competitive'' by year's end; on the latest numbers, they are succeeding (though the ALP primary vote is only 36 per cent).
Labor is asking voters - who had written off the ALP - to take another look. It is playing up a consumer-friendly, forward-looking agenda. Its research has found the line ''plans for the future'' resonates. At the same time, Labor continues to blacken Abbott's character. Suddenly, as one Coalition observer puts it pithily, ''it's not about her - it's about him''.
The Liberals have held out the prospect of Abbott becoming more positive as the election approaches (today's economic speech in Melbourne may attempt some of that). But when he has tried, it's been hard for the ferocious pit bull to transform into a benign border collie.
The political battle is fought with strategy and tactics. Some Liberals see an excess of tactics and a deficit of strategy. But even the tactics have had flaws.
Abbott fluffed his attack on the budget update by falling into the ''sexism'' trap over the cut to the baby bonus; shadow treasurer Joe Hockey opened himself to attack by describing 3 per cent growth as ''flatlining''. This week, the opposition has pursued Gillard over her Slater & Gordon days, but so far without effect.
Amid the internal angst over the polling, Abbott has been confronted with disunity over several issues.
He has looked both bad and ineffective over his handling of the government bill to complete the deregulation of wheat exports. That they are opposing this bill is contrary to the Liberals' economic principles. ''How many of the Liberal Party backbench intended to join the DLP?'' the government taunted, harking back to Abbott's admiration for B. A. Santamaria.
Abbott was simply trying to avoid Liberal defections, but his stand infuriated the West Australian Liberals and he couldn't hold the line. On Wednesday, two WA Liberals abstained on the legislation. WA National Tony Crook crossed the floor and gave the Liberals a whack for gutlessness. Other WA Liberals will abstain or cross in the Senate.
Wheat isn't the only issue where differences are on display. The Coalition can and should highlight Labor's hypocrisy in proposing to excise Australia from its own migration zone (which the ALP once trenchantly opposed). Moderate Liberals Judi Moylan and Russell Broadbent will not back Liberal support for excision, just as they wouldn't in 2006. But they won't be ''heavied''; if the Coalition accuses Labor of deserting what it believed in, it has to make a virtue of its own dissidents who are sticking to their principles.
Labor is asking voters - who had written off the ALP - to take another look. It is playing up a consumer-friendly, forward-looking agenda.
There are also divisions in the Coalition over the response to the government's Murray-Darling plan; while there are attempts to bridge that divide, it could produce defections.
Dissent on specific issues doesn't matter greatly - the Liberals have always allowed people to cross the floor. It's that it puts cracks in the image of unity on which Abbott has placed so much store.
As he contemplates the polling, Abbott faces strategic questions that have been clear for a while. Does he play down the carbon tax? Does he quickly roll out more policy to reframe his image?
Government and opposition have different readouts on whether the carbon tax has lost potency. Labor insists it has, and that will be an increasing burden on Abbott as he keeps promising to repeal it. Senior Coalition figures argue it still has bite because it links to high electricity prices. But it can be counterproductive, including for Coalition morale, to pursue carbon endlessly in question time - it just invites Labor attacks.
Rolling out more policy seems an obvious way to try for a boost. But it is not that simple. Early rollouts can get lost in the white noise, be trashed or stolen by the government (the Asian white paper contains some Coalition policy), and leave less for release later, when voters are taking more notice.
Abbott doesn't need to push the panic button, but unless the final polls for the year bring some good news for him, there will be pressure for serious stocktaking over Christmas.
Michelle Grattan is The Age's political editor.