John Key the star in a rough campaign

The star of the campaign has been John Key. The flop has been Winston Peters. The winner has been the election itself — interest high as it has not been in a long time.

And it has been the battle of the big fellas, evenly matched and both strong as we haven’t seen since 1981. The small parties are there and relevant to coalition-building but not the force of previous MMP elections.

National’s attack billboards kicked off the campaign. Don Brash starred in grossly misleading comparisons with Helen Clark. The billboards were witty as well and became part of popular culture, a status any ad agency — and party — would die for.

They set the scene for the most negative campaign in decades, with both main parties disgracefully misrepresenting the other (Labour’s anti-nuclear attack, for example) and ACT joining in — Clark and Michael Cullen went feral. The Greens, polite and focused on policy, were an exemplary exception.

Key himself proved up to the hand-to-hand combat Cullen took to him: the young bull testing his testosterone against the old bull at the height of his powers. On the trail Key oozes political pheromones: ambitious but not ruthless, confident (able to ride over mistakes) but not overweaning, unthreatening but also uncommon, charming but not smarmy. In pop-psych-speak, he is “well-grounded”.

His leader by contrast couldn’t remember the name of one of his candidates, couldn’t remember policies and bungled the Brethren’s unchristian intervention on his side — and on the campaign showed a cynical, ruthless streak to modify the pre-campaign picture of the focused, courteous, straight-as-a-die man.

Still, it was Brash who got National into the contest in the first place. Win or lose, National is enormously in debt to Brash. But it might, if in office, ponder the means: Brash got National in the game on race. This is a “race” election, with deeply disturbing undertones, every bit as much as a “tax” election.

But Brash had help. Cullen failed to respond in his Budget to the shift from the group politics of his youth to the managerial politics of today’s individualised, look-out-for-yourself society. A bigger tax shift would have taken the edge of National’s and he bungled the handling of student loan costings.

So, astonishingly, Cullen, normally a huge asset to Labour, became a liability — though challenged by Trevor Mallard, who screwed up three times, with his unprovable conspiracy theory about American funding of National, his decision to tell Helen Clark about the pilot’s outrageous remarks about her and losing his rag on television over the student loan costings.

It fell to Clark to lift Labour above that fray. Too often she joined in the dirty work better left to underlings. But at her best she was impressively prime ministerial and attracted oodles of goodwill on the trail. If Labour wins, it will be Clark’s win.

Prizes for innovation go to the Greens for their excellent “frogblog” in the new campaigning arena of cyberspace, to Labour for its long-prepared targeting of the “disconnected” vote which might be crucial and, if so, would score a win for democratic participation and to the whiz who invented National’s billboards.

A big black mark goes to National for introducing from Australia some nasty techniques, notably the dog-whistle — the “iwi/Kiwi” billboard subsonic pitch on race, for example — and for the Nat brats who hurled abuse at Clark. A black mark, too, to Labour for using taxpayers’ money for campaigning and for its “eviction notice” campaign frightening elderly state house tenants.

And a black mark to Peters, desperately unhappy in Tauranga, for his last-minute roll of the smear dice. He was not his chirpy self. Don’t expect him back in 2008 if he does badly.

Prizes for oddities: Brash for bringing back knighthoods; Steve Maharey for the quirkiest initiative, to bring back mothers-in-law.

And finally the media: a black mark to TV3 for its crass lockout of two parties from its first leaders “debate” on the basis of a single poll and to TV1 for the shambles it made of its first debate. Both could learn from Radio New Zealand.

And a big bouquet for the Herald. I can say that because I am not on the staff and have no say in editorial decisions. The coverage has been exemplary in its breadth, variety and depth, especially of policy. No voter need be ignorant.

Many will be and will struggle to work out how to use their two votes. Some will decide at the last minute. That’s our democracy and it somehow muddles us through — invariably to the right result because the voter is always right.