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CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia's campaign for the August 21 election has hit a gender divide.
Opinion polls and a nationally televised debate have found women are throwing their support behind Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Australia's first female prime minister, who took over from Kevin Rudd on June 24.
Women appear to have problems with conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott, a super fit politician regularly photographed in swimming briefs or cycling lycra.
"I certainly get women, but obviously I've got some marketing to do," said Abbott, who has acknowledged the gender gap and made changes to his campaign to counter the problem.
Abbott, married with three daughters, has brought his family into the campaign, with his wife Margie appearing at a function on Monday and his daughter Louise joining him on the hustings on Tuesday.
Gillard, who is not married and has no children, has no plans to bring her long-time partner Tim Mathieson into the campaign.
A Nielsen poll on July 24 found 58 percent of women supported Gillard's Labor government and 42 percent supported Abbott's coalition Liberal-National Party, compared to an overall vote of 54 percent for Labor and 46 percent for the opposition.
In Sunday's televised debate, audience reaction meters by two networks showed a clear distinction between men and women, with women voters regularly rating Gillard higher and Abbott lower.
But the move is nothing new, said Marian Sawer, professor of politics and gender issues at the Australian National University, who said a similar partisan realignment had been happening for several years in Australia and other Western democracies.
"If this is a trend, it predates Abbott becoming the coalition leader and Gillard becoming the Labor leader," Sawer told Reuters. "For the last three federal elections, women have been less supportive of the coalition than men have."
Sawer said a similar gender voting gap opened up in neighboring New Zealand during Helen Clark's eight years as prime minister until 2008.
While women might not like Abbott's stance against abortion and pre-marital sex, Sawer said they were more likely than men to be concerned about health, welfare and community services, areas more identified with the center-left Labor Party.
Media have focused on Abbott's problem with women voters, but have also looked at whether Gillard has an underlying problem with male voters.
After Abbott enlisted his family in the campaign, Gillard was quizzed about whether her partner would also become involved.
"Obviously for my partner, Tim, his job is being supportive of me," Gillard said.
Sawer said studies found Australians were not concerned about the gender of candidates, and Australian men were unlikely to have any problems with voting for a woman leader.
"But it may be that women are identifying more strongly with the pleasure of seeing the first woman in that leadership role," she said.