Down here in the Barossa Valley, the locals tell me that the best thing about Kevin Rudd is that he is not Johnny Howard and the second best thing is that he is so similar to Johnny Howard. They don’t really know much about the Labor Leader, just that he looks like a serious bloke who doesn’t drop his aitches.

My suspicion is that the popularity the opinion pollsters are finding is based not on a positive endorsement of Rudd, but on negative feelings about his opponent. Politics was a bit boring when old Kim Beazley was challenging good old Johnny. Now at least there’s a bit of interest in the contest as the young bull goes after the old one.

That the bulls seem to be the same breed stops the contest being threatening. The unrepresentative sample of people I mix with in this staunchly Liberal area think you can treat the Rudd v Howard contest as a game, because nothing much would change whoever wins. And while ever that attitude remains, the Government is in trouble.

John Howard has to convince people that there really is a difference and that a government led by Kevin Rudd would be different from his in a dangerous way. Hence the emphasis being placed on Iraq, even though Australian involvement in that conflict is not popular.

The Coalition wants to get the idea in to people’s minds that a Labor government would not be tough enough to make the hard decisions necessary in an age of terrorism. The PM and his Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, were out spreading that message yesterday with their claims that Rudd was a two-bob-each-way man who both supports and opposes policies like sending more Australian soldiers to train the Iraqi military – the Australians should not do training in Iraq but it would be okay for them to do it across the border in Jordan.

Rudd appears to be enjoying the perception of himself as a better PM than Howard and is increasingly acting as if he is a Prime Minister rather than a Leader of the Opposition. Flying off to Perth to share the limelight with Howard was provocative, as was the comment that Howard was now a threat to national security. Howard sensed the opportunity to portray his challenger as an arrogant fellow with his riposte that Rudd is a bit full of himself.

Expect to hear more of the same if the State Premiers do not reach agreement with Howard on Friday on plans to protect the Murray-Darling Basin. Rudd has been talking as if he is the leader who will make this policy happen, but if it ends in a stalemate he will also start carrying the blame.