Tony Abbott rallies in Australian TV debate but fails to woo women voters
But pollsters showed the staunch Catholic remains unpopular with female voters.
In the first week of a five-week campaign, Mr Abbott faced up to prime minister Julia Gillard in a calm and measured nationally televised debate. Selected television audiences of undecided voters gave victory to Ms Gillard, but most political analysts gave the debate to Mr Abbott, saying he performed better than expected and showed he was Ms Gillard's equal.
"Tony Abbott probably won it. Tony Abbott had the better of this debate," said veteran Nine Network political editor Laurie Oakes.
Opinion polls show Ms Gillard is on track to win the 21 August election, where she is seeking voter endorsement after she usurped former prime minister Kevin Rudd in a dramatic party-backed coup in late June.
A Nielsen poll at the weekend found Ms Gillard consolidated her lead in the first week of the campaign, while an earlier Reuters poll trend found her on track to win a larger majority.
Analyst Nick Economou scored the debate a one-all draw, but said an audience monitoring system set up by commercial television networks, known as the worm, had found women clearly favoured Ms Gillard to the super-fit moral conservative Mr Abbott.
"The worm confirms Tony Abbott has a problem with women and there appears to be a gender gap with how people might vote," Mr Economou said.
Earlier, both sides of Australia's political divide promised to cut immigration in a move that has angered Australian business.
Mr Abbott promised to curb the immigration intake from 300,000 last year to around 170,000 a year, and to ensure population growth slows to around 1.4 per cent from more than 2 per cent. "We would manage the programme to bring it down to what we think are sustainable long-term numbers," Mr Abbott said.
But Ms Gillard hit back and said intake was already falling to around 230,000 people this year and would fall further to around 145,000 people by 2012.
"We need a sustainable Australia, not a big Australia," Ms Gillard said. "We've brought immigration numbers down as the economy obviously was dealing with the impact of the global financial crisis."
Australia is going through an immigration boom as it seeks skilled workers and in a tight labour market, and Mr Rudd had championed population growth from about 22 million to 36 million by 2050.
But the move had upset many people in crowded outer suburbs around the biggest cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, where government services are struggling to keep up with growth and where housing is becoming less affordable.
When she replaced Mr Rudd, Ms Gillard was quick to move away from her predecessor's big Australia policy and has instead promised a more sustainable population, although she has refused to set any targets.
Around one in four Australians was born overseas, including Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott, who were born in Britain but migrated to Australia as children.
The Business Council of Australia, representing the country's biggest industries, said tough talk on cutting immigration was not in the national interest. Its chief executive, Kate Lahey, said: "Growth will offset the effects of Australia's ageing population and ensure governments have the revenue to pay for health care, education, infrastructure and environmental initiatives."
Earlier, Mr Abbott's Liberal Party suffered a setback when it dumped a candidate after he criticised Ms Gillard for being an atheist and criticised his Labour Party opponent for being Muslim.