Opposition Leader Tony Abbott meets parents and children at Bear Cottage on Sept. 1, 2013, in Sydney. Australian voters will head to the polls on September 7 to elect the 44th parliament. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

When the leader of Australia’s opposition Liberal Party, Tony Abbott, recently praised one of his candidates in upcoming parliamentary elections for her “sex appeal,” the governing Labor Party was quick to accuse him of sexism.

A few days later, after a poll suggested the comment had improved his chances of winning in Saturday’s elections and becoming prime minister, Abbott doubled down. The candidate, a 36-year-old marketing consultant, “ain’t just a pretty face,” he told reporters after she correctly answered a question about the party’s policies to promote small businesses.

The mild public reaction to Abbott’s provocative remarks represents a striking turnaround for a man who was once among the least popular political leaders in modern Australian history. Now he is the front-runner in an election likely to end Labor’s six years in office and deliver power to the Liberals — a center-right party that, despite its name, is ideologically closer to the U.S. Republican Party than to the Democrats.

The transition would not necessarily trigger changes visible abroad: The two parties have similar stances on a range of foreign policy matters, from tough asylum policies to maintaining close ties with Washington. But it would have a palpable effect at home, where Abbott has pledged to cancel some policies embraced by the left, including a pending carbon-emissions trading scheme.

Another promise, which even some in his party have called too generous, is a plan to give all working mothers six months paid leave to look after their new babies. Funded by a tax on business, it would fully replace salaries of up to $135,000 a year, a high threshold Abbott hopes would encourage more successful career women to have children.

Abbott proposed the idea in 2009, the year he was elected head of the Liberal Party, which was trying to regroup after a big election loss in 2007. As leader, he oversaw improvement in the party’s fortunes but remained unpopular himself. Experts say his tough and sometimes personal attacks on the Labor government and its first female leader, former prime minister Julia Gillard, turned off many voters.

‘Action-man type’

Even by the matey standards of Australian politics, Abbott — who in his 20s briefly trained to be a Catholic priest — is seen by some voters as holding overly traditional views on the role of women. He once asked rhetorically, in a discussion about the rarity of women in powerful positions in Australia: “What if men are, by physiology or temperament, more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command?”

“He is an action-man type guy,” said John Wanna, a professor at Australian National University and one of Australia’s top political scientists. “He’s also the kind of man who would open the door for a lady.”

One of Abbott’s friends and a former Liberal member of Parliament, Ross Cameron, said the Labor Party had unfairly portrayed Abbott as anti-women for political purposes. “He is just as mystified by them as the rest of us,” Cameron said.

A Rhodes Scholar who boxed at Oxford, the 55-year-old might be one of the world’s fitter leaders. Often photographed in a tight-fitting bathing suit, Abbott runs or cycles several times a week before dawn. He finished the 2010 Australian Ironman triathlon in 13 hours, 57 minutes, placing him in the middle of his age group in the grueling event.

After Gillard accused him of misogyny in a fiery speech last year, he toned down his attacks on her. Even though she was more popular than Abbott, Gillard was removed by her party in June because of perceptions she was going to lose the election. She was replaced by Kevin Rudd, the Labor prime minister from 2007 to 2010.

Since campaigning formally began Aug. 4, Abbott has mostly avoided personal attacks on Rudd. But after his “sex appeal” remark, Rudd chided Abbott for using language that would be frowned on in many workplaces.

The criticism seemed to backfire. In the following days, Abbott’s popularity rating rose almost to the level of Rudd’s, according to the national Australian newspaper, and the Liberal Party’s governing coalition opened up a lead that most commentators predict Rudd will be unable to close. A week before Election Day, Abbott surpassed Rudd for the first time as the most-preferred leader.

“Labor was trying too hard to play the Dr. Evil card against Abbott, and it left them exposed to their own lack of clear ideology,” said Mark Rolfe, an expert on political leadership at the University of New South Wales.

A helping hand

Rudd complains Abbott’s path to power is being smoothed by News Corp., the U.S. media group controlled by Rupert Murdoch that owns about two-thirds of Australia’s newspapers by circulation.

“Why is it that they are constantly taking a club to our government and not putting Mr. Abbott under one minute’s scrutiny?” Rudd said in a television interview Aug. 23. “The answer is pretty simple: Mr. Murdoch wants Mr. Abbott to be prime minister.”

Murdoch hasn’t hidden his view of the candidates. On Aug. 20, he tweeted: “Conviction politicians hard to find anywhere. Australia’s Tony Abbott rare exception. Opponent Rudd all over the place convincing nobody.”

The day after the election was called, the main headline in News Corp.’s Sydney tabloid, the Daily Telegraph, read: “Kick This Mob Out.” The company’s Courier-Mail, the only daily paper in Rudd’s home city of Brisbane, covered a campaign debate under a photo of Rudd and the headline, “Does this guy ever shut up?” echoing an Abbott jibe at his opponent’s long answers.

“It was more like propaganda than news reporting,” said Tom Watson, a British lawmaker and Murdoch critic who was in Australia for part of the election campaign to highlight what he says is News Corp.’s slanted coverage.

News Corp.’s Australia division doesn’t deny the company is rooting for an Abbott victory. “Our newspapers are not aligned to one side of politics or another but have a long record of supporting candidates who are in tune with the electorate’s own mood,” a spokesman said in an e-mail. “This is the process that is playing out in coverage of this election.”