ONE Liberal MP says Tony Abbott's view of his continuing deep personal unpopularity is that he is in ''a two-horse race and you've just got to beat the other horse''.
In the latest Newspoll his satisfaction rating has fallen to 31 per cent, his lowest ever; his dissatisfaction level rose to a new high of 60 per cent. Julia Gillard has 30 per cent satisfaction and 60 per cent dissatisfaction. Despite Labor trailing 46-54 per cent, she leads as better PM 40-37 per cent.
Rebecca Huntley, a director at Ipsos, which conducts focus groups, says the general feeling about Mr Abbott is that ''there is a question mark over his head - what kind of prime minister would he be?
''They still see him as John Howard's pugilistic minister with a potential for volatility.'' But given his disciplined performance and the government's problems, she expects voters to ''quash any niggling feelings of doubt about him'' at the election.
Nielsen pollster John Stirton says Mr Abbott polarises people. ''Conservative voters … think he's a potential saviour for the nation. Everyone else isn't quite so sure.
''His 'take no prisoners' style has had Labor spooked from day one and his reward has been a healthy opinion poll lead for the Coalition. But this has come with a cost, or at least it has reinforced his negative image.''
In the Nielsen poll, Mr Abbott's personal popularity peaked more than two years ago and the longer-term trend has been down.
The trenchant attack on Craig Thomson is being seen by some as a cause of the latest worsening in Mr Abbott's ratings. But the Liberal quoted above says: ''I don't think anything has changed. Both leaders are as unpopular as each other, and have been for a long time.'' The only thing that would cause any reassessment of Mr Abbott's leadership would be a change in the two-party vote, he says.
Another Liberal says the Thomson affair has poisoned the atmosphere for both sides. Mr Abbott, as much as he can, probably ''has to keep away from doing the heavy lifting on the negative stuff''.
A third Liberal says the Thomson and Peter Slipper affairs are ''a pox on both sides''. People polarise over Mr Abbott, but his leadership is ''rock solid''.
A fourth MP reports difficulty selling Mr Abbott in his electorate: people ask, ''Why don't you get Turnbull back?''
History shows personal unpopularity can go hand in hand with electoral success. Shortly before Malcolm Fraser won his 1975 landslide, he rated 29 per cent approval and 53 per cent disapproval.
Mr Abbott warned Coalition MPs yesterday that it would be hard to win the election. He pointed to the government handing out money. Ms Gillard ''won't lie and die and where there's life there's fight''.
In Parliament Ms Gillard said Mr Abbott was right. ''I will stand up and fight for working people and their families,'' she said.