The first head-to-head leaders’ debate – tonight!

The first head-to-head debate between David Cunliffe and John Key (tonight, 7pm, TV One) could be a real turning point of the election.

(Yes, I’m very biased.)

But the fact is – ignoring questions about Mike Hosking’s moderation, and the issues many people raise about head-to-head debates being a relic of FPP – for the first time in the campaign we’ll have our two prospective Prime Ministers on an equal footing. And after merrily gliding over Dirty Politics, Oravida, Maurice Williamson, Novopay, and the Christchurch unrebuild with a few bon mots and a smile-and-wave for the last three years, this could be where the cracks really show for Key.

(Yes, I know, I’m very biased.)

As I’ve covered in a post, Labour are simply winning the policy discussion on paper. There’s a strategy, there are tactics supporting that strategy. National, in comparison, has focused on slick advertising and a cult-0f-personality approach to drive their message.

It’s a risk to underestimate Key. He’s got experience in this format, and experience of winning, and the vast majority of people (who don’t hang out here for fun, unfortunately!) will be interested in surface impressions – they’re not going to go away and google PREFU documents to fact-check his figures.

But I suspect he’ll be looking for a zinger – I hate to bring it up, but his team will be looking for a “show me the money” headline-grabbing jab. They have to – their whole strategy is about saying “we’re going in the right direction and those guys are losers.” He’s already trying to frame Cunliffe as scared or uncertain.

All Cunliffe has to do – and it can’t be too much to ask, I pray to the leftwing gods – is hold his ground, know his stuff, and prove he is on equal terms with Key. He doesn’t have to knock it out of the park, he doesn’t have to get a ten-point bounce. The polls are tight. The Conservatives are nipping at National’s heels.

Given fair moderation – and Hosking has to be scrupulously even-handed given the kerfuffle around his appointment – and the media narrative of the Unstoppable John Key Charisma Train, this is Key’s debate to lose.

(Biased, but hopeful.)

I’ll be livetweeting the debate – you should totally follow me! Or for a broader view try the #nzpol or #votenz hashtags.

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