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Australia votes on whether 1st woman PM survives

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[August 21, 2010]  CANBERRA, Australia (AP) -- Australians chose between making a conservative male their fourth prime minister in three years or sticking with their first female leader in tight elections Saturday just two months after she took power.

InsuranceIn early counting, the Australian Electoral Commission said the governing center-left Labor Party was trailing the conservative opposition coalition in the popular vote. It was not yet clear whether Labor would lose its majority in the House of Representatives, where parties form governments.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television that Labor would lose seats but not necessarily enough to lose the government.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, a 48-year-old former lawyer with a common-law hairdresser spouse, came to power in a June 24 internal coup in her center-left Labor Party during the first term of her predecessor, and almost immediately called elections to confirm her mandate.

She was vying against Tony Abbott, a married 52-year-old former Roman Catholic seminarian with three daughters who barely gained the endorsement eight months ago of his own conservative Liberal Party, which has led Australia for most of the last 60 years.

Australians have not dumped a first-term government since 1931 when a Labor administration paid the ultimate price for the Great Depression. However, this year's elections are colored by Gillard's surprise seizure of the helm of her party from former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd after a series of poor opinion polls.

Gillard, a Welsh-born immigrant who grew up in the southern Australian city of Adelaide, acknowledged before polls closed that Labor could lose its entire eight-seat majority in the 150-seat House of Representatives. Labor won 83 seats at the last election in 2007.

Issues vary across the large and diverse country, but asylum seekers, health care and climate change are hot topics nationwide. Another issue brought to the forefront Saturday was the presence of the Australian military in Afghanistan, where two soldiers were killed the day before. The government and opposition both support Australia's military commitment to Afghanistan, where 20 Australian troops have now died.

Gillard and Abbott both sent their condolences to the families and praised the sacrifice of the soldiers.

Abbott has raised the possibility of increasing Australia's commitment to Afghanistan above the 1,550 troops now there if his coalition wins government.

At a news conference to announce the deaths, Defense Minister John Faulkner said his government would maintain current troop levels if re-elected.

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"I have consistently said that I believe that the contribution that Australia is making is about right," Faulkner told reporters.

The decision by Labor power-brokers to support Gillard -- a cheerfully charismatic and sharp-witted woman widely regarded as a better communicator than Rudd -- cost the party the traditional incumbent's advantage.

Abbott, whose socially conservative views alienate many women voters but whose supporters say he can better empathize with Australian families, is his party's third choice as leader since Prime Minister John Howard led it to defeat in 2007. Abbott beat his predecessor by a single vote last December in a party ballot.

Abbott has long been seen as a gaffe-prone fitness enthusiast who is often lampooned in the media over the many images of him clad in Lycra cycling and swimming wear.

But for Jodie Waterhouse, a 31-year-old housewife and longtime Liberal supporter, it is Abbott's work-life balance that won her vote.

"I do care about paid maternity leave, education and the environment," said the mother of a toddler and 5-month-old twins in Adelaide. "But I suppose I vote because I like the person and the balance they deliver, and I think Tony Abbott is delivering that as much as any politician can. It sounds funny, I know, but I like that he's into exercise, I like the personal balance."

[Associated Press; By ROD McGUIRK]

Associated Press writer Tanalee Smith in Adelaide, Australia, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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