VIENNA (Reuters) - Norbert Hofer, vying to become the first freely elected far-right head of state in Europe since World War Two, said opponents who repeatedly accused him of seeking a break with the European Union (EU) were themselves damaging Austria.
Hofer had initially said Austria could follow Britain's vote on the EU with one of its own within a year. Although he quickly backed away from that suggestion, his opponent Alexander Van der Bellen has cited it as proof Hofer wants Austria to follow Britain's Brexit referendum with an "Oexit" vote of its own.
Austria's neck-and-neck presidential election on Sunday will be a new measure of the wave of populism sweeping through Europe and the United States. It is also unique in being a re-run of a vote held on May 22, before Britain voted to leave the European Union and Americans elected Donald Trump as president.
The issue was one of several the two men clashed over in an unexpectedly ill-tempered debate on Thursday night, accusing each other of lying and unfair tactics. [nL8N1DW6D2]
"People who permanently talk about Oexit and accuse others of damaging the country with talk of Oexit should take a look at themselves and think about whether they are the ones damaging Austria the most," Hofer told a campaign meeting.
Speaking beneath a backdrop bearing the slogan "Your homeland needs you now", Hofer added that the European Union was in crisis and he did not want to cede more power to Brussels.
"I do not want to be the governor of Austria," he said, without explicitly ruling out a referendum on the EU.
Hofer narrowly lost the initial May 22 vote to Van der Bellen, a former leader of the Greens, but it has been rerun because of irregularities in the count of postal ballots. Opinion polls since have regularly shown the race is too close to call.
Van der Bellen produced a picture of his dead father to denounce an accusation by a senior figure in Hofer's Freedom Party that his father was a Nazi. The two traded interjections such as "That is a lie" and "Let me finish".
Any effect of the debate on the election is unclear. The tone was a particularly striking shift for Hofer, whose easy smile and smooth delivery had earned him a reputation as the friendly face of a party railing against immigration and Islam.
In a speech touching on regular themes such as lowering taxes and improving trade relations, especially with Russia, Hofer also said immigrants such as refugees should not be able to claim the same benefits as Austrians.
Van der Bellen was due to speak later on Friday.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy)