TV3 leaders' debate - my first impressions

Goff got a Labour-friendly debate and Key a National-friendly panel on tonight's TV3 leaders' debate. Given voters' low expectations of the Labour leader, it was his night as the worm ate him up with a spoon

For me, Goff won three of the four segments, but Key finished strongest; Goff won on policy, Key won on coalitions.That's my call on the TV3 debate this evening.

If the true measure was how undecideds would have reacted, I think on the night Goff would have to be most pleased. Expectations are vital in debates, and Goff has been dismissed by many voters as too familiar, too pointy-headed, too much the career politician. But that wasn't the Goff on display tonight. He kept his smile and was more positive than he was on the first TV One debate – you don't go negative in the final week.

But Goff would have over-performed for many viewers. An example of that is this story he's found in recent days, of his wife being born in the shadow of a state asset – the Mangakino dam – and how his father-in-law built it for New Zealanders. That's a powerful narrative, stressing the party's only-hope policy and making him appear much more likeable and everyman.

But to be fair, he made better use of statistics and facts, too. Lord knows what debate Paul Henry was watching (and why didn't TV3 balance a former National Party candidate with a different point of view? Putting a rabi right-winger beside a political scientist who determinedly doesn't like expressing opinions and an analytical political editor was a mistake, even allowing for Campbell's left leanings). Goff was quoting Treasury reports like they were going out of fashion.

Key started slowly, surprisingly poor on the economy. While he got much closer to Goff on partial state asset sales, that ship has sailed; voters don't want them sold. He was vague on most policy points. It seemed to be me he's just got bored with being on-message for so long, he almost can't bear hearing himself say the same old slogans.

He was strongest on Winston Peters (and warning about debt). He was able to deflect the ACT farce effectively and out Goff squarely on the defensive over New Zealand First. Although can he really keep getting away with describing ACT as "dependable" and "stable"?

From a TV point of view, Goff pauses for a slip second when he's not on sure footing, and it makes him seem a bit shifty. Key desperately has to do something about his listening face. He somehow got away with it in the first debate, but surely some mainstream comment will emerge this time. He looks bored, condescending and slightly baffled. That's a hard mix to pull off! Something to work on.

While we're on the TV part of it, the team at TV3 opted for more debate on fewer topics. It's always a hard choice – cover more topics in less detail or fewer topics in more. And there are only different ways of failing on that – you get flak whichever way you go.

But what stuck out to me was the topics chosen – the economic debate was through the lens of the underclass and poverty, then a whole section on partial state asset sales. Those are very Labour-friendly topics. I imagine the Nats will be rather peeved with TV3's editorial choices there; but then they owned the panel.

The worm peaked and bottomed out with Goff. But it sat well into the positive more with Goff than it did with Key, and my memory is that it's two highest moments were when Goff talked about after-hours healthcare for kids and Labour's $5000 tax-free policy.

At least, I think that was with the studio worm. Goff won the studio worm, no doubt. Why? Was it the audience? Their expectations? Goff's performance? Or something lacking in Key's? Probably a bit of each.

The at-home worm mostly flat-lined, however. Not enough people downloaded the app? I wonder how many. Were the people at home just bored? Or had they changed channel?

And it re-inforced one thing we've learnt about Key in all the recent polling. Voters love him, but don't really trust him. It tended to head south when Key talked about his honesty and transparency. I don't get how that works – 'top bloke, would love to have a beer with him, wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him'.

The most uncomfortable moment was Goff on Peters.

The dumbest was Key saying that getting our national debt down would stop family violence.

The fact-check moment of the night was whether or not there are more jobs after three years of National – one of the leaders is wrong on that one.

The challenge of the night will be whether Key goes back to McGehan Close and to its neighbouring school. I'm guessing not.

Off you go now, tell me where I'm wrong.