What a campaign can do for a leader

Late in the week the election was called National party planners pulled apart Bill English’s whistle stop tour of 54 towns in 35 days. There was no longer time to go helicoptering all over the countryside.

The regional blitz had come a bit late in any case. English himself is on his own cognisance a slow burner. Now he doesn’t have time to burn in slowly, as Helen Clark did during six years as Opposition leader, touring the provinces a day or two a week, laying down a midden of local publicity and connections.

English, made leader only nine months ago, has to get his profile — and his acceptability — up in just four more weeks. Labour calculates that that leaves him caught short.

National puts some store in past campaign lifts for languishing leaders. Bill Rowling, pilloried as weak and ineffectual against counter-punching Sir Robert Muldoon, clawed back to respectability in both the 1978 and 1981 elections once he got equal television time. Helen Clark climbed out of the pits to rescue Labour from oblivion in 1996.

So, the National line goes, watch the real Bill English emerge as he now goes head to head with Clark, with equal exposure for the first time. We will see the alternative prime minister then.

Or will we? Some in the National party worry that the real Bill English is not an alternative prime minister. If that is what the campaign brings out, National is in trouble.

Leaders have long been important, even crucial, to election campaigns. King Dick Seddon won five elections for the Liberals from 1893-1905 and still dominates Parliament as a larger-than-life statue in front of Parliament buildings.

William Ferguson Massey was a leading figure through four elections from 1912. In 1925, after he died, a highly successful campaign for his Reform party was built around the slogan, “Coats off with Coates” — Gordon Coates, the dashing new leader, was photographed ready for action. Then there was the sainted Michael Joseph Savage in 1935 and 1938.

So talk of “presidential” campaigns, as if they are a 1980s invention, is a bit overdone. Leaders of parties large and small have long been central to campaigns and leaders who capture voters’ imagination or reassure them are valuable commodities.

Or have they?

In 1972 National was so uncertain about its new leader, Sir John Marshall, that it bracketed him with his up-and-coming deputy, Muldoon, in a campaign sloganed “Man-for-man the strongest team”.

That campaign bombed. “Big Norm” Kirk, made over from slob into something approaching suave by a young Bob Harvey rode a landslide, had a song written about him and a record of his sayings issued after he died in office amid outpourings of grief.

Which brings us to Rowling v Muldoon. On election night in 1975 Rowling said he felt as if he had been “run over by a bus”. Muldoon had some big advantages: the economy was a mess after the first oil shock, he talked the language of ordinary folks and he looked, sounded — and was — rough and tough. Rowling was tough but he didn’t look it and act it and he talked the language of reason.

Three years on, going into the 1978 campaign, polls showed Labour consistently trailing National. In the campaign they suddenly closed. On election night Labour had more votes than National (though still lost on seats).

Why the rise? Later research showed that while Muldoon easily beat Rowling as “preferred Prime Minister”, Rowling scored comparably or better on six out of seven measured “prime ministerial” characteristics, losing only on “strength”. And “strength” proved to have a negative side: Muldoon was disliked by far more people than was Rowling.

During the campaign Rowling was more on show. People could more readily see his capability (even if also his “weakness”). And Muldoon’s negative side came more sharply into focus. The contest between leaders became much less uneven.

Fast-forward to 1996. Midyear Helen Clark scored only 2% in one poll as preferred prime minister. Jim Bolger, Winston Peters and Jim Anderton towered over her. MPs half-readied a coup to bring back Mike Moore.

Having scotched that in a pre-emptive strike, she took the Kirk lesson, just as had David Lange in 1983 when he got his stomach stapled to slim his billowing silhouette. Clark got herself breathtakingly restyled from hairdo to lipstick to fashion clothes. She also had an important factor going for her: focus group research showed people believed she could be trusted to keep her word.

Then came the “worm”.

In 1993 a “worm” had helped lose Australian Liberal leader John Hewson the “unlosable election” to incumbent Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating. An audience watched the first television debate between the two and registered approval and disapproval as the debate went along. A line on the bottom of the screen added up the reactions: it stayed much of the time on Keating’s side and Hewson was a goner from that moment.

On September 25 1996 Clark debated Jim Bolger on television. A worm recorded a hidden audience’s reactions and excerpts of the debate were played afterwards, with the worm added. Next day’s headlines were “Clark wins”, followed by headlines of Bolger fuming about foul play. Nightly tracking polls showed an immediate lift for Clark and Labour. When the votes were counted she was a credible contestant for Prime Minister in the coalition auction.

Can English do that? Watch him with a crowd of the faithful and it becomes plausible. He talks straight from the shoulder in the clear language of a smart man who is also a man of the people. Surely that will show in the campaign.

Probably, but will it be enough? That depends on what else there is to show. The campaign will brutally display every winning hit, every mistake and faux pas, every show of strength and weakness. And he is up against a battle-hardened campaigner of Boadicea-like determination, who dots all i’s and hoses down every ember of contention — and who can present herself not only as presidential but also at ease in the shopping malls.

The good news for English is that his personal ratings lifted after the boxing match. That is, voters are more aware of him. Also good news is that there are no strong negatives, which is a plus for him compared with the woman he supplanted, Jenny Shipley.

Moreover Clark has a muldoonesque side that might play to English’s advantage: what some see as arrogance, evidenced in calling the election early to get a majority. Hence her Clintonesque emphasis in her opening television address last Friday on her constant feeling of privilege in doing the job.

But what we haven’t seen yet from English is what Rowling could show in the heat of battle: the maturity of a man ready and able for the job. The fire he has been under as the polls have slid have been “character-building”, he says and he has remained remarkably chipper, which indicates a deeply secure person underneath the public persona. He has just four weeks to make that work for him.

At least he doesn’t face Clark’s 1996 problem of minor party leaders with higher public profiles going into the campaign. This time the two potential prime ministers are well clear of the pack.

Nevertheless, the campaign is vital to the other leaders, too. Though the media focus remains on the two potential prime ministers leading the big parties, the small fry and minnows are less crowded out than at other times. The campaign can break or make a small party’s chances.

In 1996 Anderton’s and Peters’ ratings wilted when the campaign heat went on as Clark won credibility — though they held at respectable levels and Peters even became Deputy Prime Minister. Richard Prebble achieved the reverse.

Prebble picked topical issues, ran on an appealing slogan (“Values. Not Politics”) and levered off yearnings by some to complete Roger Douglas “unfinished business”. He achieved the improbable and lifted ACT from nowhere to 6%. That showed what a skilful campaign by a seasoned campaigner can do.

Can he use the exposure over the next four weeks to pull his party up over 5% again? Or will the campaign this time just show an old dog doing old tricks, even if this time ACT is also pushing the “team”?

Anderton and Peters are also old dogs. But Anderton is busy reinventing himself as the constructive Deputy Prime Minister. And Peters is trying to resuscitate the Peters of old, on law and order, the Treaty and immigration. And they have a useful weapon: plausibility on camera.

Laila Harre has to establish plausibility and appeal from scratch if she is to survive. It’s equally tough for minnows Peter Dunne and Graham Capill.

And there are the Greens. They do things differently. They have two co-leaders. The crucial votes that got them into Parliament in 1999 probably came courtesy of Nandor Tanczos, then a scarcely known “Wild Green” with funny hair.

But it is the Greens’ policy, their ethos that is their real attraction. That is already playing effectively. Who needs a leader?