And so it begins

John Key.
John Key.
The country should brace itself for a drawn-out battle to the polling booth, judging by Prime Minister John Key's various comments to the National Party's northern convention at the weekend.

Mr Key rightly pointed out to the gathered faithful that next year's election would be a demanding one for National, saying it is ''always difficult to win a third term'' and that ''third terms are notoriously challenging''.

Hardly in-depth analysis; merely statements of fact. But his subsequent shots at his political opponents were a clear signal that National is entering campaign mode. Mr Key stated 2014 ''is going to be quite a different election to what you normally see''.

''Normally, elections are fought between the centre left and the centre right. That is not what's going to take place next year. David Shearer has cut his cloth and it is wrapped around Russel Norman ... that now becomes an election between the centre right and the far left.''

He criticised the Green Party's money supply policy, and the Labour-Green plan to regulate wholesale power prices.

No surprises there, one might think, but the fact Mr Key should even acknowledge the Labour-Green alliance as a threat is interesting.

The Government sailed through its first term - and much of its second - with high approval ratings and an Opposition in disarray. But the past few months have proved more difficult, and the Opposition is finally (at times) looking like it could possibly be a viable alternative.

Mr Key and his colleagues have had some trying times of late.

''Brain explosions'', the SkyCity casino deal, Solid Energy, changes to GCSB legislation, the refusal to implement changes to MMP and other issues have created heat.

And that is to say nothing of its asset sale programme. Always controversial, the Government at least was able to argue it had a mandate to sell assets, given its romp to victory in the last election.

But with Mighty River Power shares now lower than the float price, there are already calls for the planned float of Meridian Energy - a key plank of its asset sales strategy - to be postponed.

Power must be a troubling topic for Government MPs. In quiet backrooms, even they will acknowledge the Labour-Green alternative did achieve cut-through with many voters.

National's Budget earlier this month was a ''don't scare the horses'' Bill English special. One of Mr English's strengths is his ability to present the Government as a responsible, careful steward. When presenting the Budget, Mr English was able to say ''the Government's books are the envy of most developed countries''.

It was a message repeated at the weekend, with Mr Key pointing out the Government had ''held its nerve'' while managing the economy through various challenges. He asked ''is New Zealand in better shape than when we found it in 2008? The answer is yes.''

It is a message we can expect to hear repeated time and again in coming months.

Given the attacks on Labour moving further to the Left, it is also interesting to note the Government stepping up in the area of social policy.

Mr Key and his advisers obviously believe now is the time to show a softer side. In just the past few days it has made announcements on family violence programmes, free spectacles for children, to $18 million in funding to help mothers with postnatal depression.

And the language Mr Key used in announcing a food-in-schools programme was also telling: ''Some people will say we shouldn't do it because parents should look after their children and feed them ... [but] if the child is not fed ... we know they don't learn.

"In the end they are a victim. They may well be a 6- or 7-year-old victim that can't stand up for themselves so we have some responsibility to do something about that.''

Who can argue with a policy to protect 6-year-olds?

To complete the picture of a man already on the hustings, Mr Key was probably most obvious when he said ''by the time you get to election 2014 you will have seen us for six years. If you like what you see and want to see more of it, vote for it again.''

The campaign has begun.

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