|Tony Abbott has gained a reputation for being a publicity-savvy politician [EPA]
Tony Abbott, Australia's conservative opposition leader nicknamed the "Mad Monk" after once training to be a Roman Catholic priest, has resurrected his Liberal-National coalition's chances in forthcoming elections.
The straight-talking, pugnacious and socially conservative politician was a rank outsider for the opposition leadership but pulled off a major shock last December when he won by just one vote to take over the flailing opposition coalition.
His ascension - which made him the opposition's third leader since John Howard lost government two years earlier - was greeted with "a roar of gobsmacked silence" in Canberra, The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper said at the time.
He has performed strongly in opinion polls since then, sufficiently rattling the ruling Labor party that it dumped former prime minister Kevin Rudd in favour of Julia Gillard in June as polls indicated the government was headed for defeat.
But his "shoot-from-the-lip" style has offended various sections of the population and got him in trouble, notably when he admitted politicians do not always tell the truth, saying that the statements that should be "taken absolutely as gospel truth" were "those carefully prepared, scripted remarks".
"All of us, when we're in the heat of verbal combat, so to speak, will sometimes say things that go a little bit further," he told the ABC network.
Abbott has frequently been caught swearing in front of the cameras and also has had to shrug off as "a bit of hyperbole" earlier comments that climate-change science was "crap".
Gillard, the Australian prime minister and his chief rival as the country goes to the polls on August 21, once confided to a senior conservative politician that she felt "almost maternal" towards Abbott, according to media reports.
"He's like a child stumbling towards a fire, you know he's going to burn himself. I sometimes feel like reaching out to protect him"
Julia Gillard, Australian prime minister, referring to Abbott
"He's like a child stumbling towards a fire, you know he's going to burn himself. I sometimes feel like reaching out to protect him," Gillard reportedly said.
After winning the opposition leadership position, Abbot asked the public to give him a clean slate, acknowledging "that at times, I have stuffed up" as his deputy, Julie Bishop, mouthed: "That's true."
Yet Abbott's straight-talking resonated with many Australians who were disillusioned by Rudd's bureaucratic speeches when he was prime minister, winning back voters to conservative parties.
Only a few weeks ago, the Liberal-National coalition was ahead of the Labor government and on track for election victory.
The dumping of Rudd for Gillard last month has put the ruling Labor party back in front in opinion polls, but only narrowly.
The London-born Abbott, 53, whose parents moved to Australia, holds a Bachelor of Law and Economics from the University of Sydney and a Masters of Politics and Philosophy from Oxford.
Abbott is a leading conservative party intellectual who marshalled opposition to the government's emissions trading plan to secure the leadership.
|The political race between Gillard and her chief rival Abbott is expected to be tight [Reuters]
He has also opposed everything from attempts to make Australia a republic to embryonic stem cell research and same-sex marriages, to a 40 per cent "super tax" on mining profits.
And he has vowed to reintroduce mandatory detention of boatpeople in Pacific and Indian Ocean detention camps.
A keen surfer and fitness buff, he appears regularly in swimming trunks while training for beach lifesaving duty, further adding to his reputation as a publicity savvy operator.
This year he completed a gruelling Ironman race, swimming 3.8km, cycling 180km and running 42km.
Abbott studied at a seminary before changing career paths, publicly saying he was too interested in attractive women to become a priest.
He worked as a journalist before pursuing a career in politics, entering parliament in 1994 and rising to health minister under Howard.
The Australian Rhodes Scholar who once represented Oxford University at boxing, has never been shy of a parliamentary battle and his tough campaign style will be a major factor in whether he can end Labor's rule after only one term.