The Conservatives have now found their turangawaewae - they're offering the same but different whereas Peters has to figure out how to sell his 'wait and see' approach to coalition
The shadow boxing between Winston Peters and Colin Craig is will be one of the most interesting bouts on display in the final weeks of the campaign. Just how these two spar - and triangulate with John Key - could be crucial to the shape of the next government.
It's the defending champ versus the young pretender. You saw it on the Campbell Live dinner last night. For Craig the rest of the guests were irrelevant, he simply needed to box Peters into a corner. He did that by using a line we'll hear a lot from him from here until the election - 'if you want National (but with better morals) vote Conservative, because New Zealand First won't say which major party it will support'.
Craig is hoping that there's two percent soft National support out there that is disillusioned with National, but not in love with the idea of a Labour-led coalition. His hope is that they want to change the government, but not too much. He's hoping that people will be happy for National-ACT-United Future to be joined by the Conservatives with half a dozen MPs to keep things, well, conservative.
New Zealand First is still in the box seat, because it's over five percent in most polls and has Winston Peters with the gloves on. He's not going to get boxed in easily. But he is trapped by his own promise to let the voters speak first before indicating which way NZF will go. So if you're a soft National supporter -- someone in the space between National on 50% and National on 45% -- then Peters can't offer you any guarantees.
It's intriguing to see these parties fighting it out near to five percent, because the wisdom of the commentators is that there wouldn't be room for both of them to get five percent. I've always thought the Conservatives would get around four percent, but that the final one could be a bridge too far. Yet Dirty Politics has some floating voters looking for a safe, more decent harbour, so there's now a definite chance both could cross the threshold.
What will be fascinating is how Key plays the competition between the two. For him, the calculation is that he could work with either, and if either get to five percent they will probably be all he needs (with ACT and UF) to govern. He would have to choose, because Peters would never support a government with the Conservatives on board. But he might be able to play them off against each other. And, as odd as it seems, he may prefer the young pretender to the old tusker; indeed a couple of journalists I've spoken to say he's been saying that out loud the past two days.
For him I guess there's a certain logic: Think of 2017. Think of an easier life for the next three years with a new party in cabinet rather than a cross-benches arrangement when he goes cap in hand to Winston on every bill. And think of only having binding referenda as a bottom line, instead of New Zealand First's long list.
And most of all, think of that fact that if Craig gets five percent, it means Labour isn't taking its falling vote and National is probably home and hosed.
On the other hand, he rejected a deal with Craig in East Coast Bays just weeks ago because he feared National would be damaged by association. Does he want to court Craig too openly given his track-record of chem trails and moon landings? And isn't there still time for Craig to crack and look out of his depth? On the online-only segment of the Campbell Live dinner Craig said he wanted to cut the Ministry of Education's budget in half to fund his flat tax, which will raise a few eyebrows.
So will enough people still buy into Craig if they know about the implications of binding referenda, flat tax and no new trade deals? Might Key prefer the devil he knows rather than the risk of the unknown new boy?
So the opening blow in this round has been landed by Craig, arguing that he is the man to deliver a government that's different but the same. How will Peters respond?