What distinguishes the next Prime Minster?

The most remarkable element in this election is the unremarkability that the choice of Prime Minister is between two women.

This may be a minor subterranean factor in the rise of the flank parties — some men seeking a man to vote for. But in the media there is no gee-whizz about this extremely rare factor. It seems the country has got used to it.

It may have helped the acclimatisation that neither Jenny Shipley nor Helen Clark is a Cleopatra, Elizabeth I or Indira Gandhi. Charisma has bypassed both.

There are other similarities. Both have farming in their backgrounds, Ms Clark by birth and early upbringing and Mrs Shipley by marriage. Both exhibit a presbyterian streak, Mrs Shipley (daughter of the manse) in her drugs obsession and Ms Clark (from a frugal household) in her determination to run balanced budgets. Both are close to age 50.

But they are also very different. Ms Clark’s greatest strength is in her intellect. She has also demonstrated coolness under pressure and steely ability to withstand assaults that would have felled most men. Mrs Shipley’s greatest strength, which she has largely failed to exploit in her two years at the top, is her “one-of-us” identity with ordinary family folk. That might have made her unbeatable on Saturday.

Mrs Shipley’s greatest weakness is her abysmal political management: Kevin Roberts, the Tourism Board, the “I made it up”, the threat to sack her own former party president over the Lotto fuss. Astonishingly for someone nine years close to the top, she lacks political feel: witness her misjudged attack on Jeanette Fitzsimons last week.

Mrs Shipley has also not made the transition from portfolio minister, where her formidable capacity to master briefs greatly impressed most public servants who worked for her, to Prime Minister, which demands a big-picture capability briefs don’t furnish. Her most notable achievement has been her intelligent reorganisation of the cabinet machinery and structure — fashioning vision has been others’ work.

Mrs Shipley is not of the ilk who come ready-made into the prime ministership. She has had to learn on the job. She learns fast: in flashes she has been very impressive, enough to suggest that in a second term she would develop considerably. But she will be judged this Saturday on her first term.

Ms Clark’s greatest weakness is her reserve. When that is coupled with her braininess and her passion for elite or solitary recreations (opera and cross-country skiing) and her childlessness, ordinary folk sense distance. The private Ms Clark can be funny and warm and open and in the past two weeks, as she has gained confidence, this has shown on the hustings in her eye contact with audiences and their response. But television audiences have yet to see that.

Ms Clark’s other big weakness is her strong centralising bent. Policy has been tightly controlled, the campaign likewise. Very few are allowed into the inner circle. This suggests that as Prime Minister she would be a very controlling manager. Amid the complexities of modern government that would not work.

Ms Clark has the advantage over Mrs Shipley of a long apprenticeship. The gangly conference delegate of the early 1970s, the awkward feminist standard-bearing minister and Deputy Prime Minister of the late 1980s, the embattled coupster of 1994-96 has chrysalised into a Prime Minister in waiting.

Which of these two remarkable women will win?

Tax is the top underlying factor favouring Mrs Shipley, with unions and ACC probably also working for her. ACT has brought the treaty ominously to life on her side.

But, even including tax and the treaty, more and weightier underlying factors have favoured Ms Clark since early 1997.

High on the list is that National “lost” both the 1993 election (saved from its 13 per cent plunge only by Labour’s low credibility) and the 1996 election (saved by Winston Peters from a majority vote for parties vowing to get National out). Voters seldom are thwarted twice, let alone thrice.

At a deep level voters have for some time indicated they want a “correction” to the present policy mix. Labour this time just credibly offers that. That gives the “time for a change” mood weight.

Underlying factors can be overridden by some scare or momentary excitement or top-of-mind issue. But none of National’s or ACT’s attempts to get such hares running seem to have excited the hounds of public opinion.