By Elaine Lies
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's Shinzo Abe, beset by scandals and a recent crushing loss in Tokyo elections, is likely to opt for safe hands over new faces in a cabinet reshuffle on Thursday that may not deliver the prime minister as much of a boost as he hopes.
Opinion polls show support for Abe has plunged to its lowest since he returned to office in December 2012 with a promise to revive Japan's stale economy and bolster its defences, endangering his goal of revising the pacifist constitution.
Abe had until recently also been seen as likely to win a third term as head of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and thus the premiership, putting him on track to be Japan's longest-serving prime minister.
But support has fallen below 30 percent in the polls, hit by opposition-fanned suspicions of Abe's favoritism to a friend, as well as voter perceptions that he and his aides have grown arrogant in office. The LDP's defeat by a novice political party in a July assembly election has also hurt him.
"The goal of this cabinet reshuffle is to intensify 'Abenomics' and aim mainly for economic reform," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference on Wednesday, referring to Abe's signature plans to reboot the economy.
But with media reports suggesting Abe will play safe and pick ministers with previous experience, some even in the same post, doubts are growing over the size of any ratings boost.
"I don't think there's any rabbits that Abe can pull out of his hat in the cabinet reshuffle that's going to suddenly lead to a big bump in his poll numbers," said Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asia studies at Temple University's Japan campus.
With a pick that may attract some foreign attention, Abe is set to tap Taro Kono, a former administrative-reform minister with wide international connections, as foreign minister, Japanese media said. His predecessor, Fumio Kishida, is set to become the LDP's policy chief, the reports said.
Market participants had wondered whether Abe would seek to perk up his cabinet with a new faces, such as Shinjiro Koizumi, the telegenic son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, but the younger politicians did not appear in cabinet lineups reported by the media.
Itsunori Onodera is set to return as defense minister, a position he has held before under Abe, whose former trade minister Toshimitsu Motegi is to be economy minister, major Japanese media said.
Finance Minister Taro Aso is expected to remain, as is Trade Minister Hiroshige Seko, in a potential lineup that has not impressed financial markets.
"I don't think the actual cabinet announcement will send markets suddenly lower, but I don't think these will be popular enough to take his support rate up," said Rikiya Takebe at Okasan Online Securities.
Seiko Noda, a former cabinet minister often spoken of as a possible future woman premier, will be minister for internal affairs and communications, media say, in a move to woo women voters. Noda tried to run against Abe in the most recent LDP election.
"She has been at odds with him in the past, so I guess it would be showing that he's trying to be more inclusive and try to dampen his reputation of being haughty," said Kingston, but added that he doubted her presence would help boost support.
(Additional reporting by Daiki Iga and Chehui Peh; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)