KEVIN Rudd is appealing to his desperate and dysfunctional party as its best vote-getter, but he is confronting a seething hatred from his many critics determined to block his resurrection.
He goes into the ballot with a minority of votes. But now the shadow boxing is over, he can lobby openly, in what will be a bitter contest very different from the surgical overnight coup of 2010.
The public will be on Rudd's side. This contest is centrally about polling and Labor's future. Julia Gillard's leadership has come under pressure because Labor's primary vote has been constantly stuck around 30 per cent. If she had performed better and not stirred such animosity from the electorate, Rudd would have been doomed to irrelevance. As they consider their votes, Rudd will be asking MPs to dwell on the prospect, on present numbers and with the current leader, of the government and the ALP being trashed at the election.
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But the battle is equally about the past, and ministers' and caucus members' memories of how the former PM conducted his administration. Would Rudd Mark 2 be a rerun of Rudd Mark 1? Absolutely, the Gillard backers will say. In his weekend TV performance in response to the ''swearing'' video, Rudd suggested he had learnt lessons, but many in Labor don't believe that.
The crisis has come to a head earlier than is best for Rudd. The situation got out of control at the weekend, with a Rudd camp outrider calling on the PM to step down, and the leaked video. Rudd would be better placed if things had waited until after next month's Queensland election, when some of the odium of an anti-Labor swing would have rubbed off on Gillard.
Gillard, however, has mishandled her tactics. She let ministers and other supporters loose on Rudd, taunting him to challenge, floating the prospect of his dismissal. She was in a strong position in terms of numbers this week: she would have been better to rest on those laurels rather than find herself in this risky situation, even though she's favourite on the numbers.
If she wins convincingly, Rudd will be seriously set back. But if the bad Labor polls continue, as likely, that will not be the end of the matter. From the backbench, Rudd would be able to make trouble. If the vote is closer than expected, Gillard could expect a second challenge later. A Rudd win would speak for itself.
This government has turned itself into a shambles. A party that overthrows a PM in his first term, and then returns to consider its choice a couple of years later, has forfeited its credibility. However these events turn out, the chance of the government appearing convincing to a majority of Australians seem nil - it's about the size of the loss. Labor and its leaders have squandered the mandate Australians gave them in 2007.