By Rob Taylor
CANBERRA, June 26 (Reuters) - When Kevin Rudd was swept to power as Australian prime minister in 2007, the Mandarin-speaking former diplomat was the largely unknown but seemingly genial face of progressive politics.
Six years later, Australians know him now as a ruthless adversary who waged a three-year leadership struggle to topple Julia Gillard after she ousted him amid plummeting Labor support in 2010.
"The truth is if we are all being perfectly honest about it right now is that we are on course for a catastrophic defeat, unless there is change," said Rudd before being restored to the prime ministership by Labor lawmakers desperately hoping he can help avert an expected September 14 election thrashing.
Rudd, 55, knows better than anyone the monumental job facing his party to regain the trust of voters who polls show have grown weary of Labor infighting.
He was the architect of widely unpopular new carbon and mining taxes that fuelled perceptions of Labor incompetence that gave rise to minority government in 2010, while also softening border protection laws favoured by many voters.
Rudd also has to regain the trust of his own bitterly-divided party, in which many MPs switched allegiance to Gillard in the first place in frustration over his imperious leadership style and often chaotic decision making.
Political insiders joke that while Gillard was liked least by those furthest from her office - voters - Rudd is liked best by those who have never had to work with him.
"This is a programme - a jihad of revenge - the like of which we've never seen before in the history of Australian politics and it goes beyond the normal human reaction of revenge," former Labor leader Mark Latham, who has left parliament, told ABC television. Rudd's constant campaigning, he said, had split the party and was close to "evil".
Rudd has tried to mend fences and promised lawmakers there would be no fallout from the leadership battle.
"Everyone makes mistakes," a candid Rudd said at a Sydney Catholic college this month, in a speech interpreted as reaching out to disgruntled party members with a promise of change.
"One of the things that I have been slow to learn is the importance of simply privately and publicly acknowledging the good work of others.".
The switch to Rudd may be too little too late for Labor.
Polls show Labor facing a defeat of huge proportions with the loss of up to 35 seats in the 150-seat lower house, which would likely take the centre-left party a generation to recover from, worse than its last period in the wilderness between 1996 and 2007.
A Newspoll in the Australian newspaper this week was the latest to show the conservatives leading the government, with 57 percent support compared to 43 percent for Labor. Rudd was preferred over Gillard by 58 percent of voters.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott has promised to curb government spending if he wins power, as well as scrap Rudd's carbon emissions tax which many Australians blame for driving living costs to among the world's highest levels.
Failure to deliver a political revival could see Rudd, who grew up in poverty but is now married to a millionaire businesswoman, lumbered with much of the blame for fuelling the instability that now threatens to culminate in defeat.
Rudd is used to overcoming adversity. The youngest of four children, Rudd grew up in a small country town in the northern state of Queensland.
POVERTY SHAPED RUDD'S VIEWS
His life was thrown into turmoil at age 11, with the death of his father in a car crash. The family was forced off the dairy farm their father ran but did not own, shaping Rudd's early political views on the value of welfare.
"When my father was accidentally killed and my mother, like thousands of others, was left to rely on the bleak charity of the time to raise a family, it made a young person think," Rudd said in his first speech to parliament in 1998.
As a teenager, Rudd threw himself into school work, reading transcripts of parliamentary debates in his spare time. He became a champion debater and was dux, or top student, of his high school. He also joined the youth wing of the Labor Party.
Rudd mastered Chinese language, culture and politics at the Australian National University in Canberra, where his tutors described him as serious and self-disciplined, and joined Australia's diplomatic service after graduation.
Rudd won a seat in parliament in 1988, building a national profile with spots on morning television, where he would spar with junior ministers about the political issues of the day. He returned to TV to build momentum for his challenge to Gillard.
But his restless ambition has never waned, made clear by his maiden speech in parliament.
"I have no intention of being here for the sake of just being here. Together with my colleagues it is my intention to make a difference," he said. "Politics is about power." (Editing by Ron Popeski)