Yesterday, Crikey reported on a rumour that the Courier-Mail has been setting up hapless Liberal leader Bruce Flegg for a fall. That’s eminently possible, but he probably doesn’t need much help. Bruce’s latest campaign adventures have included the revelation that a June Dally Watkins stylist accompanies him on his campaign and an incident where a South Australian Liberal operative threatened a press photographer. An actual Flegg policy was announced and reported yesterday. Bruce wants restaurants to serve healthier meals. What the state government can do about this no one seems to know. Flegg suggests eateries can display a government logo if 20% of their meals are low fat.

But the Courier-Mail also reported a poll showing 57% think Flegg is getting a hard time. So Peter Beattie was right to say just that earlier in the week. The focus group research reported in yesterday’s Crikey, facilitated by Graham Young  and me for The National Forum, showed that participants largely saw Flegg’s problem, not as his ineptness (for which they did have some sympathy), but his inexperience. Flegg was perceived as being too inexperienced, having no policies outside health, and being too new to politics. His main negative was the manner in which he took the leadership off Quinn.

But it’s not just Flegg’s leadership at issue. Leadership is key to this campaign. Voters are sceptical of big ticket promises, and Beattie’s gloss is wearing thin after eight years, but neither Flegg nor Springborg meet their minimal expectations for an alternative. Images of both Beattie and Springborg are well entrenched.

Focus group participants held strongly negative views of Springborg, with only one exception. He is troubled by the perception many opposition leaders confront — that he is carping and being negative. But the language used was significant. A 24-year-old male Greens voter described him as a “sour little tantrum thrower”. A female public servant, 45, leaning Independent, use the term “retard”. A male undecided paramedic, 31, said Springborg stood for nothing and had betrayed the bush.

Springborg’s presentation on tv was perceived as “ranting and raving” and “whining”, and he was seen as a weak leader who was too comfortable in Opposition. There were few positives and those were qualified — “genuine but naive” according to a Labor voter in his 50s from Ipswich. Springborg’s claims that the Coalition had runs on the board and the experience to deliver were disbelieved by most.

By contrast, Beattie was generally seen as strong and hard working — although he certainly had negatives, which were predictable for a leader in office for a long time. Many participants were tired of Beattie, but still saw him as the only viable option to lead. While we didn’t ask about Anna Bligh, her name was raised a few times, and positively.

In 2004, Springborg’s commercials heavily promoted him jogging in a singlet. These ads obviously had an impact, as participants searching for a positive quality to highlight about Lawrence mentioned he was a good runner. But it seems fitness and youth cannot overcome perceptions that he has no positive agenda and stands for little other than winning office. At this stage of the campaign, the biggest threat to the ALP remains a protest vote. The leadership race has already been run, and won.