It's just shy of 7 o'clock on a crisp winter's morning in Geelong. Tony Abbott is on his way to rescue the Great Ocean Road from the ravages of man and nature - or at least to rescue the seat of Corangamite from the ravages of Labor - with a quick photo opportunity and the promise of a $25 million handout.
There's time for a chat from the car with the morning crew on local radio station K-Rock. Chook, Leroy and Becks reckon the Leader of the Opposition has got the election in the bag. Chook suggests they get together for a celebratory "mushroom tea".
Abbott responds with a line that has become a mantra as his fortunes have looked more and more auspicious: "Well Chook, I've always said that winning from opposition is like climbing Mount Everest."
As the peak he has been doggedly ascending for a lifetime looms large, Tony Abbott recognises that hubris may be a greater threat to realising his ambition than any last-minute tactics by Kevin Rudd. The next day I suggest that the closer he gets to the summit, the better the outlook must be.
"When you get near the top you can certainly see the view if the weather's OK," he says. "But anything can happen and the Labor Party are ferocious political fighters. The further behind they are, the tougher they fight. They have got a lot of money. There is going to be a barrage of negative advertising over the last fortnight and who knows what impact that might have?"
Abbott's caution is understandable. He cut his federal political teeth working as press secretary to John Hewson and had a ringside seat as Hewson lost the "unloseable" election to Paul Keating in 1993. And he led the Coalition to the cusp of victory in 2010, only to see Julia Gillard snatch the prime ministership with the support of independents.
But halfway through this election campaign the momentum is with Abbott. The polls show the surge in support that Kevin Rudd's resurrection gave Labor is leaching away. The question is rapidly switching from whether the Coalition will win to how substantial that victory will be.
Rudd's dramatic return to the leadership might initially have thrown Abbott off course, but he has recovered and is campaigning with extraordinary stamina and growing confidence. Now Rudd is the one who seems off balance and, despite a plucky performance in Wednesday's debate, it's hard to see how he can recapture the initiative.
After toppling Julia Gillard in June, Rudd moved quickly to blunt the big negatives for Labor with swinging voters - toughening up on asylum seekers, moving to fast-track the switch to emissions trading and attacking Labor's undemocratic internal processes. But Abbott has spent years re-engineering his own political persona to be more electable and, although he remains a less popular figure than Rudd, many of the polarising issues of the past are gone from his agenda.
Abbott's policy shifts have seen this election infused with a rare degree of policy bipartisanship. The Coalition is now on board with both the national disability insurance scheme and the Gonski education reforms, and both sides are now committed to stopping the boats, with Rudd holding the tougher line for now. And industrial relations has been relegated to a secondary issue with the infamous WorkChoices (which Abbott originally opposed) not only "dead, buried and cremated" but also no longer an effective counter-punch for Labor.
Once a strong critic of free market economics, Abbott now tells The Australian Financial Review he is channelling Peter Costello. Once an ardent centralist, he now proposes to further devolve power in areas such as health and education to the community.
Staunch critics still argue Abbott is merely masking his reactionary convictions until he has power and an opportunity to impose them on everyone else. Yet there is little doubt the hardline Tony Abbott of his rabble-rousing youth and early political career has given way to a far more pragmatic if not gentler figure, a new brand of Tony Lite.
The trainers have worked hard to keep the old student activist, self-proclaimed junkyard attack dog and Oxford University boxing double-blue from being his old blueing self. Save for occasional flashbacks, the testosterone is now relegated to the bike and the beach.
He says it is for others to judge whether he is a changed man, but adds: "I am conscious of the fact that I am older, and as you get older you understand that life is a little more complex than it sometimes seemed when you were young. There are more shades of grey inevitably when you hit middle age than there were in the first enthusiasm of youth."
He nominates multiculturalism as one issue on which he has reversed his position in recent years. "The realisation that 99.999 per cent of migrants have come here to join us, not to change us, has certainly changed my view," he says.
His about-face on paid parental leave, which he vehemently opposed a decade ago, has been so profound that he defied the Liberals' business allies and key figures in his own caucus to insist on a scheme - vastly more generous than the government's - now central to his election strategy. "If you want to encourage larger families in the modern world, you've got to make it easier to combine work and family, because the vast majority of families need more than one income, which means the vast majority of women are going to be in the workforce in their child-bearing years."
While Labor and prominent economists argue the scheme is too generous and unaffordable, and Abbott brazenly refuses to release detailed costings, the policy could prove a strategic coup.
Despite the latest Fairfax Nielsen poll showing women are yet to be won over, the Abbott camp is confident they will. At the very least, the policy is expected to ameliorate the consistent polling message over recent years that Abbott is neither liked nor trusted by women - a problem not helped by his once strident opposition to abortion and his efforts as health minister in the Howard government to restrict the abortion drug RU486.
This week Abbott reacted forcefully when abortion was raised at a media conference: "No one should be making this a political issue. It hasn't been a political issue in our country for years and years and years. The last thing we should want to do in this great country of ours is to politicise issues like this and go down the American path."
Tony Abbott now declares he wants to be a healer. He says his first priority if he wins will be to rebuild Australians' confidence in government and restore civility to political discourse after three bruising years of minority government.
"The greatest deficit in our country at the moment is the trust deficit. Sure, we have got a very serious budget deficit, but the trust deficit is even more serious. I would hope that, should we win the election, I would be able to so conduct myself and my team would be able to so conduct themselves that by the end of the first term, people would have once more concluded that Australian government was competent and trustworthy ... The important thing is to let the public know that they can be confident that if a prime minister and a government makes a statement, barring unforeseen events or major disasters, it will turn out to be true."
Abbott says that in "nearly all things" his role model is John Howard, but he insists a government he leads will not be a Howard sequel. "I'll be different from John. I respect and admire him, I revere him in some respects, but obviously I am different. The first term of the next Coalition government, should we get one, is not going to be the fifth term of the Howard government."
He argues his poor personal standing in the opinion polls has been more Labor's fault than his. "Every day since I became Opposition Leader, the prime minister of the day, with several ministers in support, has come out to say that I am the world's worst so-and-so. The government has a very big megaphone and while the current government have been hopeless at administration, by God they have been good at politics. At least a part of my supposed unpopularity is due to the fact that I have been smeared by experts up hill and down dale."
Abbott is excoriated by the left as a Catholic zealot biding time to impose his morals on the land. Yet the former seminarian has been more discreet about his faith in recent years than Kevin Rudd. The television cameras have never followed Abbott to Sunday Mass, while church was almost a weekly media event during the first Rudd regime.
An Abbott government certainly would be dominated by a menage of Micks - including Hockey, Turnbull, Pyne, Abetz and Brandis - but they are a diverse bunch in social outlook and personality and hardly the makings of some sinister Vatican fifth column. Any ambition Abbott might once have had to evangelise conservative social values has been banished along with the budgie smugglers as a bad look, if not a political impossibility. Today's Abbott is a born-again pragmatist who scorns as "codswallop" suggestions that he still harbours a hidden social agenda.
"If you want to know what a guy is going to be like in government, look at what he was like in government, and I don't think anyone could say that I was anything other than a highly competent, straightforward, successful senior minister."
Abbott is upfront on issues where he hasn't changed. He remains firmly opposed to same-sex marriage, unlike Rudd who took the Damascus Road and joined the pro-camp just weeks before toppling Gillard as prime minister.
As the campaign moves into its critical final stages, Abbott is demonstrating what a consummate political animal he is. He is relaxed, tireless and unfailingly personable in his contacts with the media, the public and the occasional protesters who pierce his campaign cordon.
When an agitated man gatecrashed a news conference in western Sydney this week, yelling that his wife was being victimised at work, Abbott invited him to a back room where they talked for 10 minutes and the local candidate was asked to follow up. As he went to leave, Abbott offered his hand but was instead embraced in a warm bear hug.
As Abbott has taken the front-runner's mantle this week, his confidence has grown, as has his ability to get away with dodging crucial questions about how he will secure his big-spending program in a period of plummeting government revenues without blowing out the deficit.
Critics accuse Abbott of talking in slogans, but his polished and direct delivery and his facility for distilling messages into digestible "grabs" is tailor-made for the world of 24/7 news and hyperactive social media. It is proving a strong counterpoint to the often verbose style of Kevin Rudd.
Abbott's crack at Rudd in the heat of Wednesday night's debate - "Does this guy ever shut up?" - was immediately judged by the commentariat as an act of intemperate rudeness. By the next morning, it was the hottest debate topic on Twitter and across the electronic media with everyone seeming to conclude that, yes, Kevin does love the sound of his own voice. It became a free kick for Abbott, fuelling speculation this was no slip of the tongue but a calculated stunt.
Increasingly, Abbott shows an uncanny knack for turning gaffes to his advantage. Both last week's "suppository" blooper and his banter about the sex appeal of Sydney Liberal candidate Fiona Scott seem to be working in his favour, at least helping to humanise him with many voters. Abbott's comments about Scott - who accepted them as harmless flattery - might have infuriated the politically correct class, but Coalition strategists regard them as irrelevant. They know the election will be won or lost in the marginal outer suburban seats where the preoccupations of opinionated elites barely register.
Abbott also shows a keen sense of what resonates in the battler heartland he aims to inherit from John Howard. On Wednesday afternoon, instead of prepping for the debate, Abbott took himself to the northern outskirts of Brisbane to mingle with members of the Pine Rivers Memorial Bowls Club. He thoughtfully brought a framed portrait of the Queen to replace one that went missing during renovations a couple of years ago.
"The monarch is a great symbol of unity. The Crown has served us well," said Tony Abbott, as the bowlers voted with applause.