For years it seemed a political impossibility—laughable, even—that Australia's British-born opposition leader, Tony Abbott, a God-fearing former boxer otherwise known as the Mad Monk, would ever achieve his lifetime ambition.
But with six days to go before the general election, the fitness-obsessed Catholic, monarchist and staunch conservative seems destined to prove the doubters wrong.
He has swapped his trademark red swimming trunks for a well-pressed suit and is on the verge of becoming Australia's 28th prime minister. His poll lead appears so decisive that one betting agency has decided to pay out a week early to those who bet on his victory next Sunday.
To put himself within reach of the top job, Abbott, 55, has not only had to campaign against a popular prime minister, Kevin Rudd, and an unbelieving public, but had to overcome a wayward past and a reputation for sexism, misogyny and untamed aggression.
But he always seemed to know that his most dangerous opponent was himself. Announcing his most cherished policy—a plan for one of the world's most generous parental leave schemes—Mr Abbott declared: "I am pleased and proud that I have moved on this. I think in this respect I am a bigger, better man now than I was a decade ago."
During a gruelling five-week campaign, he has sought to prove that he is not simply a buffoonish brawler with a propensity for slip-ups. Instead, the father of three, who once trained as a priest, has offered himself as a stable alternative to Rudd's "confused and chaotic Labor Party", which has switched leader from Rudd to Julia Gillard and back in the past four years.
"We will be a no-surprises, no-excuses government, because you are sick of nasty surprises," he declared at his campaign launch. Inevitably, he has made occasional slip-ups. He urged support for one of his female Liberal candidates because she had "a bit of sex appeal", and audibly asked of Rudd during a televised debate: "Does this guy ever shut up?"
But he has run a tight, well-ordered campaign and softened his image by appearing frequently with his two younger daughters, Frances, 22, and Bridget, 20. And so the nation has begun to see another side to the Mad Monk, even if the public still has not completely warmed to him.
"Australia is getting used to the idea of Tony Abbott, prime minister," wrote Peter Hatcher, a political commentator, in the Sydney Morning Herald. "He's not a leader the country has ever embraced. He's never been liked by the majority. But gradually, almost grudgingly, Australia is coming to think that he may not be desirable but he is probably acceptable."
Mr Abbott has faced a formidable opponent in Rudd, the Mandarin-speaking diplomat who made a triumphant return after deposing Gillard, Australia's first female leader, in June.
Rudd—who is also 55, a devout Christian, and a father of three—has campaigned on his success in steering the country through the financial crisis during his first term from 2007 to 2010. He has warned that Abbott will deliver British-style austerity cuts that would lead to a recession.
But Abbott has responded with a question which the prime minister has struggled to answer. "If his management of the global financial crisis was so outstanding, why did his own party sack him in June of 2010?"Abbott said during the third televised debate this week. "The circus has got to stop and the only way to stop the circus is to change the government."
Abbott has pledged to abolish Labor's carbon tax and mining tax, cut the public sector and pay up to 10,000 pounds to unemployed young people who find a job and stay in it. A staunch social conservative, he has resisted the support of the public—and his daughters—for gay marriage, even after his sister, Christine Forster, came out as a lesbian.
But he has shown a strong commitment to social justice and has made the unusual pledge to spend a week a year governing from a remote Aboriginal community if he wins.
During the campaign, he gave a candid insight into the beliefs that may serve as a guide to an Abbott-led Australia. "We are all the products of the society, of the culture, of the circumstances that have shaped us," he said.
"I'm not saying that our culture, our traditions, are perfect, but we have to respect them. I'm not someone who wants to see radical change based on the fashion of the moment."
Mr Abbott was strongly shaped by his family's traditions and expectations. He was born in London in 1957 to an Australian mother and British-born father who returned to Sydney in 1960. His mother, Fay, once claimed he would either be Pope or prime minister.
In his youth, he appeared to have the ambition for both but the temperament for neither. He did not particularly distinguish himself at a Jesuit private school in Sydney, then ran into constant trouble while studying law and economics at Sydney University.
He believed that he fathered an illegitimate child with his then girlfriend and the couple gave the boy up for adoption before he headed to Oxford where he studied politics and philosophy at Queen's College.
Decades later, he was reunited with his "lost son"; it later emerged via DNA testing that the child was not his. During his two years at Oxford, he was heavily influenced by an American Jesuit friend, Paul Mankowski, and returned to Australia to train as a priest.
But few were surprised when he left to become a journalist, then a politician. He married a New Zealander, Margaret Aitken, whom he met at a pub in Sydney.
Though his ascent through the Liberal party was swift, he was long regarded as unelectable. In 2009, he was the surprise winner of a Liberal leadership ballot amid a party split over its stance on climate change. In the aftermath, one MP exclaimed: "God Almighty, what have we done?"
But Abbott has proven a formidable leader. His display of determination is evident from his fitness regime. Shortly after his appointment, he completed an ironman triathlon—a two-mile swim, 111-mile bike ride and 26-mile run—in just under 14 hours.
He applied the same level of discipline to his relentless assault on Labor. "Politicians don't come any more ferocious and brutal than Abbott," Laurie Oakes, the veteran political commentator, has said. "His style is pure attack dog, as feral as you'd get."
In the long lead-up to the vote, he has toned down the attacks. The public has backed his party and now seems increasingly willing to hand him the job he has long believed he was destined to fulfil.