Tony Abbott has taken much from his political mentor, but it would be wrong to think he is just John Howard by default.

Tony Abbott said before Christmas: ''I hope to be John Howard's political heir, not his clone.'' In this early stage of his leadership, Abbott is giving plenty of reminders that he is Howard's child. He has made the Murray-Darling a centrepiece of his first election-year policy initiative, as Howard did in election year 2007; he is embarking on a series of defining speeches, reminiscent of Howard as opposition leader in 1995. He has even hired one of Howard's right-hand men, Tony O'Leary, as his director of communications.

Howard is personally much closer to Abbott than he was to former leaders Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull. ''He does [seek advice] from time to time. I'm not in his ear every day,'' Howard said this week. ''Tony has a lot a views that are the same as mine,'' he said, but added that they diverged too, a reflection of the age gap. For example, ''Tony has had more on-the-ground involvement in indigenous issues.''

A reading of Abbott's book Battlelines, published before the leadership change, leaves no doubt that Abbott's approach will borrow from the Howard brand. ''He's obviously been a great mentor to me over the years,'' Abbott said on Thursday. But it would be a mistake to think that Abbott will just default to Howardism. Even in government, the two had some sharp differences, particularly over Abbott's desire for a federal takeover of the hospital system.

Abbott's conservatism, like that of Howard, has a strong streak of pragmatism. He is not afraid to pitch for what would be thought of as the enemy's territory, as he did this week on the environment.

''The political left shouldn't be seen as 'owning' the environment … and I am determined to challenge any assumption that it does,'' Abbott said, agreeing he was bidding for green preferences.

While (leaving aside the Greens) the environment is Labor's natural ground, Howard showed that the Liberals can play there too.

For the 1996 election, Howard promised a $1 billion natural heritage trust from the proceeds of part-selling Telstra. In 2004, he cultivated the conservationists - but then when Mark Latham overreached on Tasmanian forests, Howard stepped back and stymied his opponent.

In one of the ironies of pragmatic politics, the election pitches of Howard and Abbott on emissions trading are diametrically opposed. As part of his struggle on the climate change issue, Howard in 2007 promoted an ETS that was later substantially reflected in the Rudd model.

Abbott won the leadership because he opposed the scheme, and his ascension killed the Government's legislation.

Abbott is walking both sides of the environmental street: his proposal for a private member's bill to unlock Queensland's wild rivers does not exactly fit the bid to be a greenie.

What Abbott's advocacy of federal action on the wild rivers and (if necessary) a referendum to get federal power over the Murray-Darling have in common is the resort to central power. Howard and Abbott both broke the nexus between conservatism and federalism.

In his policy speech in Sydney on Thursday, Abbott sought to contrast his style with an unflattering description of Kevin Rudd's. He attacked the PM's ''rhetorical overkill''; his conceit; his penchant for turning everything into a grand cause, with himself at the centre; his setting of long-range targets that he would not be around to meet. ''People are starting to get the impression with Mr Rudd that it's all about him. By contrast, the Coalition's aim, on environmental policy as well as more generally, will be to understand the relevant problem, to talk to the relevant stakeholders, to devise an achievable improvement, to be able to explain it, and to know how to deliver it.''

This is an attempt to reprise how the opposition of 1995-96 portrayed Paul Keating as arrogant and obsessed with highfalutin causes.

Howard became opposition leader (for the second time) about a year before the 1996 election; Rudd also got the job around a year out. They both had one big advantage compared with Abbott: they faced governments that people wanted to defeat. The Rudd Government is new and highly popular; it would be extraordinary if voters did not give it a second go.

Rudd was relatively unknown when he became leader; Abbott was a senior minister for a long time and a controversial figure because of some of his views. But many voters have little idea of him as alternative PM. People had a fix on Howard, even though for the '96 election he sanded off some of his harsher ideological edges. Left-leaning Phillip Adams, in this week's The Spectator Australia, argues that Abbott resembles Latham, and is as big a risk for the Liberals as Latham was for Labor. ''Both are high-impact leaders. Like Latham, Abbott will campaign strongly and rattle the incumbent, at least at the outset. And like Latham, he's doomed to self-destruct … Abbott's no John Howard who constantly risk-assessed.''

By contrast, Tom Switzer, a member of the Liberal Party and former staffer to Nelson when he was opposition leader, believes Abbott has the ability to win over ''Howard battlers'', especially in Queensland. ''They deserted the conservative cause in 2007 because they felt WorkChoices, rising interest rates and costs of living threatened their economic security.'' Abbott's harping on the higher cost of living under an ETS could help reconvert them, Switzer says.

Anecdotally, Abbott has made a better start than many expected. Liberals report good feeling among the conservative base. But his juggling act, which he started this week with his environment pitch, is to reach out to middle-ground voters at the same time as appealing to his stalwarts.

Labor argues that Abbott is a polarising, extreme figure who will divide people. An alternative view is that Abbott, because he does come through as ''authentic'', could be quite liked by those who find many of their politicians too confected (Abbott also has to juggle staying ''authentic'' but keeping disciplined).

But there is a big step between liking a leader and being willing to vote for him. Voters could warm to Abbott because of his ''what you see is what you get'' personality, but still be unprepared to take the chance that if he were running the country they might actually get something unexpected.

Michelle Grattan is Age political editor.