Prime Minister Kevin Rudd during a press conference with Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Senate Leader Senator Penny Wong and Deputy Senate Leader Senator Jacinta Collins in Parliament House Canberra on Monday 8 July 2013 Photo: Andrew Meares

The declaration of a war-footing means all other party business has been put on the backburner. Photo: Andrew Meares

Labor has placed its organisational wing on a formal campaign footing in preparation for an election as early as August.

The decision was one of two major items of business before the party's powerful national executive, which met in Sydney on Wednesday.

The other priority was the need to install candidates in five safe Labor seats after ministerial retirements sparked by Kevin Rudd's return to the leadership.

Mr Rudd will use an economic speech on Thursday to the National Press Club to set out key parameters of the looming election contest, branding Opposition Leader Tony Abbott ''formidable in the art of negative politics''.

''But a 100 per cent diet of negative politics is a lazy substitute for the hard work that is needed to develop, argue and implement policies that will change Australia for the better,'' he will say, according to speech notes.

He will also attack what he calls ''a daily diatribe of negative politics whose single objective is to cause the Australian people to feel that our country is on the verge of falling apart''.

The declaration of a war-footing means all other party business has been put on the backburner.

State Labor branches in NSW, Victoria and Queensland have been given two days to say if they can fast-track rank-and-file preselection ballots or have the national executive impose candidates – an outcome that would contradict Mr Rudd's democratisation push.

Entering his third week in the job, Mr Rudd is operating at close to full campaign intensity and was not able to attend the meeting.

In a sign of the altered political equation after his return to the leadership, Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott visited Coalition-held seats on Wednesday – Mr Rudd in Solomon (NT) and Mr Abbott in Aston (Vic).

The rush to name new candidates comes after an unprecedented changing of the guard for Labor with nine lower house-based ministers resigning at the forthcoming election, including Julia Gillard, Greg Combet, Peter Garrett, Craig Emerson, and Simon Crean.

Sources said the national executive had the greatest concerns about two seats in NSW – Mr Combet's Hunter-based seat of Charlton and Mr Garrett's southern-Sydney seat of Kingsford Smith.

Intervention to circumvent a local ballot is considered likely in Charlton, where a large field is positioning, including the AMWU-aligned Daniel Wallace, Mr Combet's former deputy chief of staff, Pat Conroy, and the party's national assistant secretary, Nick Martin.

In Kingsford Smith, Labor senator Matt Thistlethwaite is favoured as he attempts to move to the lower house, although Tony Bowen could perform strongly if the outcome is allowed to be determined by a local ballot.

As well as proposing Labor leaders be elected by ALP rank-and-file members, Mr Rudd has also stressed the value of local ballots for preselection. ''The only exception I see to that is if you have a genuine crisis of time,'' he said recently.

Speculation over the timing of the election has increased on the back of polls showing Labor neck-and-neck with the Coalition and Mr Rudd well ahead as preferred prime minister over Mr Abbott.

September 21 has suddenly emerged as a possible election date, partly because it happens to be Mr Rudd's 56th birthday.

With Judith Ireland and Heath Aston

*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Jodie Harrison as mayor of Port Macquarie. She is mayor of Lake Macquarie. Cr Harrison was named as a possible candidate for Charlton, however, the council said she did not intend to run for Labor preselection.

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