Key wins but Goff may lift

Prime Minister John Key emerged the winner of the first head-to-head debate with Labour leader Phil Goff, who, although calm and reasoned at times, consistently rose to baiting by Mr Key and lost valuable time when he could have been explaining policy.

Undoubtedly, Mr Key's opponents will be critical of the half-smile he kept on his face throughout the TV One debate last night, but he knew which buttons to push to agitate Mr Goff and get him to start shouting.

However, Mr Goff did show balance and statesmanship through parts of the debate, making a mockery of his campaign team's decision to consistently talk about a campaign built on policy not personality.

Encouragingly for him, he can probably expect a lift in support in the next round of polls.

Mr Goff has a strong personality that partially shone through. But he went off message and paid the price when Mr Key honed in on some of his indiscretions.

One of the easy hits for Mr Key was when Mr Goff called him a liar.

"I don't call you a liar, Phil, because I respect the Office of Leader of the Opposition," Mr Key responded.

By the time Mr Goff countered that he respected the Office of the Prime Minister, the moment had passed.

The first major eruption occurred over the raising of GST to 15%, and the promise by Labour to take GST off fresh fruit and vegetables.

That was when the claim of Mr Key lying slipped out.

Mr Key claimed Mr Goff would take the GST off fresh asparagus from Australia but leave it on milk, bread and sausages made in New Zealand.

Mr Key managed to keep his personality to the fore, and consistently went back to the message of building a stronger economy, taking care of the most vulnerable, not letting young people drift out of the system on to a benefit, and not making any promises not already released.

While Mr Goff promised to halve youth unemployment within the next three years, Mr Key said he could not guarantee to do that because it was a "dynamic world", a phrase he used repeatedly throughout the 90-minute debate.

Mr Goff was at his best on social issues, particularly around children in poverty, and he forced Mr Key to drag out the story of how he was brought up in a state house by a solo mother who believed in a world-class education - the reason he had risen to become prime minister.

Mr Goff focused on seeing children at school without enough to eat and with holes in their clothes because there was not enough money going into the house. That was why Labour wanted to lift the minimum wage to $15 an hour, he said.

Mr Goff floundered on what Labour wanted from deep sea oil drillers except to ask for some vague guarantees concerning accidents.

Mr Key won well on climate change, an issue on which Mr Goff should have scored highly.

But again he wasted valuable time by criticising National for keeping farmers out of the emissions trading scheme.

He did recover slightly to say that those who caused the pollution should pay the costs and that $50 billion would be met by taxpayers rather than the agricultural sector.

Mr Key was at his irritating best with his continual use of "what I can tell you", "I will say this" and "what I can say".

Mr Goff only once used "I'm saying this" as a catch phrase.

Mr Goff was assertive in jumping in to answer each question first where he could, but often lost control of the direction of the debate.

Both leaders tried mainly to avoid giving a straight answer to any question, unless pushed to the limit.



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