Australia’s election campaign has become a battle of the sexes – with questions about the country’s first female Prime Minister’s marital status, lack of children and hairstyles key talking points.

Newspapers have devoted columns to Labour leader Julia Gillard’s fashion sense, while cartoonists have focused on her sharp nose and pendulous earlobes and journalists have questioned whether she will marry her live-in partner.

“Julia Gillard has been subject to some quite nasty attacks by the opposition and in the media,” Greens leader Senator Bob Brown told reporters in Canberra. “And I’m frankly disgusted by it.

Gender is set to be a key issue in the August 21 national poll, which puts 48-year-old atheist Gillard against the conservative Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott – a Roman Catholic, family man and father of three.

“It is a gender issue – the first female Prime Minister,” Roy Morgan pollster Michele Levine said. “But also we are seeing that there are more women’s issues being debated.”

While Ms Gillard’s popularity has plunged in the last week, putting her at risk of losing the election after only eight weeks in office, gender remains a key campaign theme, even if her appeal to women in the polls is losing its edge.

“We think that there has been a pronounced sex effect,” Newspoll’s Martin O’Shannessy said, adding that Ms Gillard’s “honeymoon” after wresting power from former Labour leader Kevin Rudd in a parliamentary party coup, had ended.

A Nielsen poll published showed that the early surge Ms Gillard had enjoyed among female voters has disappeared, with only 49 per cent of women now backing Labour against 51 for the Liberals.

But while Ms Gillard’s gender advantage in the polls may be fading, her sex remains front and centre of the election campaign.

“We seem to have spent a disturbing chunk of the past week discussing Julia Gillard’s ear lobes, hair, fashion sense and marital status,” wrote columnist Josh Gordon in the National Times.

“Perhaps this is merely a bizarre symptom of a campaign during which - let’s face it - not much has happened. But perhaps ... parts of Australia are uncomfortable with the idea of a woman as prime minister.”

Ms Gillard’s action man rival Mr Abbott, 52, often photographed in lycra cycling gear or brief Speedo swimming trunks, has his own problems with female voters – particularly after outspoken comments about abortion and virginity.

The staunch monarchist who once trained to become a Catholic priest, earning the nickname the Mad Monk, has played down the gender issue but still brings his wife and daughters on the campaign trail.

“I think there’s no doubt that the prime minister did get an initial honeymoon and I think there were a lot who were quite thrilled to see that there was no job in our country that a woman couldn’t get and do,” Mr Abbott said.

Andrew Hughes, a marketing lecturer at the Australian National University, said both candidates were playing to gender roles – with Ms Gillard holding babies while campaigning and Mr Abbott often flanked by his family.

For his part, Mr Abbott will have to tone down the macho image which was a perfect contrast against former rival Mr Rudd – a bespectacled intellectual – but would not work as well against Ms Gillard, Mr Hughes said.

“Tony Abbott now looks like he’s a dinosaur in a way... there he was on the beach in his Speedos and proud of it sort of thing, showing off his Aussie blokedom. And now that comes across as quite chauvinistic,” he said.

Meanwhile, Australia’s ex-Prime Minister Rudd has broken his silence for the first time since being ousted by Ms Gillard, throwing his weight behind his successor’s faltering election campaign.

Mr Rudd, who was deposed by Ms Gillard denied being the source of damaging leaks against his replacement and urged voters to return her ruling party to power in August 21 elections.

In what could prove to be a crucial fillip for Ms Gillard, Mr Rudd pledged to campaign for her centre-left Labour government and called on voters to get over the brutal manner in which the party dumped him.

“What’s done can’t be undone. And there are bigger things at stake, bigger things than K. Rudd’s future, and that’s the country’s future,” he told public broadcaster ABC radio.

Mr Rudd, who is recovering at home from gallbladder surgery last week, said he would campaign for Ms Gillard’s re-election in a bid to block conservative Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott from seizing power in the looming election.

Australian media has been rife with speculation that an angry Rudd was behind a series of destructive high-level leaks that undermined Ms Gillard’s campaign and policy positions in the last 10 days, a charge he denied.

Despite ousting him because she felt his administration had “lost its way”, Ms Gillard said she and Mr Rudd shared the same values and lauded him as a man of “enormous capability”.

Ms Gillard acknowledged public anger in Queensland about the way Rudd was ousted from power, saying she understood the state’s voters “have got a real affection and respect for Kevin”.

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