Goff's chance to show his mettle

Labour leader Phil Goff will tonight get his first major opportunity to show voters he is up to the job as prime minister when he and Prime Minister John Key meet in the first leaders debate.

Labour has faced accusations that it has sidelined Mr Goff because he is so low in the preferred prime minster polls. The party countered that it is focusing on policy not personalities this election.

However, New Zealand voters are conditioned to presidential-style election campaigns. With Mr Key so far out in the polls, Mr Goff will need to make a strong impression in this debate to avoid Labour's campaign spluttering to to a halt tonight.

The debate starts on TV One at 7.30pm and will go for 90 minutes.

It became clear yesterday that Mr Goff will try to use National's policy of the partial sell-down of state-owned assets as a major weapon in the debates and ensuing election campaign.

For his part, Mr Key will be critical of what National says is a $16 billion "gaping hole" in Labour's election promises, including an announcement yesterday that Labour would spend $1.2 billion supporting Auckland Mayor Len Brown's plans for a light rail network in the city.

Both Messrs Key and Goff have other duties today. In the past, duties for major party leaders have been kept light on the day of a debate to allow them to be prepared.

Sources in both camps say both have prepared well for the debate, with Mr Key being particularly thorough this year. As incumbent prime minister, he has the most to lose.


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