National's to lose, but ...

As the second week of the election campaign proper gets into its stride, those who have been saying the outcome is a foregone conclusion might like to think again.

With the Green Party polling 10.1% support in the latest DigiPoll, even Prime Minister John Key has conceded the balance of power could lie in its hands should National fail to win 50% of the vote. In addition, the return to Parliament of one of National's key support parties, Act New Zealand is, at present, far from assured. In the critical Epsom electorate, Act candidate John Banks is trailing National's Paul Goldsmith - who has the invidious task of trying to lose the race for this blue-rinse seat.

If Labour, hovering around 30% support, as opposed to National's 50%-plus, can gain some momentum over the remaining 18 days of the campaign - as little as perhaps 2% per week - and with uncertainty over the minor party placings there is, as the sporting saying goes, "everything still to play for".

Many observers and pundits quite rightly place Prime Minister and National Party leader John Key firmly in the box seat.

He has performed well in the leadership debates to date, but this should be set against the reality that until last week he was the only contestant in the race.

For all the talk about Labour leader Phil Goff being a non-entity, and implications from his own party's strategy that he was likely to prove more of a hindrance than a help, at least he now gets to share the limelight rather than perennially being - as the Leader of the Opposition often is - an also ran.

He served notice in the first leaders' debate - when he called the Prime Minister a liar for reneging on a promise that GST would not be raised - that he was not going to be cowed. He suffered in the second debate in not having the ammunition to be able to parry Mr Key's taunts over Labour's economic policies - "Show me the money!" - but with its release last Friday, that argument can now be fought on its merits. That detailed release follows an economic policy narrative quite different from National's and to that extent offers voters a genuine choice. Based around a capital gains tax, enhanced savings, a phased-in raising of the national superannuation entitlement age, beefed-up research and development policies and retention of the state assets that National would partially sell, there is now at least grist to the electoral mill.

Whether such policies are credible and how Labour manages to sell them is a different matter.

Phil Goff is an experienced and evidently able politician.

What he has yet to show, however, is that he has the fleetness of mind and wit to win the influential, televised two-handed debates. This requires the confidence of a winner - Mr Key's cup overflows with it - as well as a handle on facts and figures and the ability to turn to advantage anything that comes along. The Labour leader has yet to persuade that he is truly comfortable in this most public of arenas.

Still, it was John Key himself who warned against complacency at the outset of the campaign, saying winning an election was a bit like - and as difficult as - triumphing in the Rugby World Cup: nothing could be taken for granted.

He is correct. The election may be National's to lose but with with the container ship Rena still lodged on the Astrolabe reef off the Bay of Plenty coast and threatening to disgorge its remaining oil and cargo; with Greece and the entire European economy drifting inexorably towards the rocks; and with a likely focus by voters in the last couple of weeks of the campaign on actual policy, National has to be on its guard. In the face of significant further bad news on the world economy, even Mr Key's winning and generally reassuring smile might begin to wear thin. The Rena disaster stands as a reminder of how potentially fragile this country's natural beauty is. And, if polls are to be believed, the party's policy of partial asset sales is beginning to prove significantly unpopular.


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