English showed he wasn't about to be outshone by Labour's rising star.

National leader Bill English has shrugged off Jacindamania and the ghosts of his 2002 defeat to give his party a chance at a remarkable fourth term.

Based on last night's figures, National is in a strong position to lead the next government with the support of NZ First.

But it is not a done deal with NZ First leader Winston Peters saying that while he would act in the national interest he would not rush things.

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The result is even more impressive considering English took over unexpectedly from the hugely popular John Key last November and had to see off the most charismatic Labour leader in a generation, Jacinda Ardern.

English would have been entitled to get the collywobbles about a 2002 Redux after that initial response to Ardern.

But if he did, he did not show it. Instead he turned into a street fighter.

"I got up," English had said back in the Newshub debate when he was asked about the trouncing he got in 2002. He wasn't about to lie down again easily and he campaigned to prove it.

English had more to lose than Ardern. It was his last chance. Ardern may have lost this round, but she will almost certainly get another chance in 2020.

Many had dismissed English's chances against the effervescence of Ardern, but he learned how to blow his own trumpet.

He tacitly acknowledged the mood for change -- and promised to deliver it. That came with his pledge to set a target of getting 100,000 children out of poverty and his acknowledgement that more needed to be done on the environment.

He predicted the waning of the "stardust" around Ardern.

When the pretty words weren't working, National showed just why they should never be underestimated. They went on the attack.

It was not an attack on Ardern -- whose name English never or rarely uttered -- but on Labour's tax policy and the "hole" in its books. Targeting Labour's spending promises had worked before. It was relentless, it was blatant, it might not have been accurate but it worked in the polls. He showed he could fight dirty without getting personal.

And the more Labour railed against the mythological holes, the more English dug in because as long as Labour was railing at the holes, it was talking about its tax policies rather than probing National on health and housing.

At times English was even passionate on the campaign trail. There was the Newshub debate when he set out his child poverty target and spoke of his determination to address social dysfunction.

It took a while but he eventually started talking about his own record as Finance Minster -- reminding voters just what he had done. It also served as a reminder that he had not had nine years to address the problems Labour was highlighting -- because he had not had the money to do it. At schools, he'd tell the students their families cared about them, their schools cared about them and he cared about them.

His main song sheet was the economy.

He tried to counter Ardern's unrelenting talk about vision and values through lines such as "people can't go shopping with your values". It was his equivalent of Sarah Palin's dismissal of US President Barack Obama's optimism as the "hopey changey thing". For a while there were signs National's vote was slipping away under the wave of enthusiasm around Ardern.

English played to the store of credibility he had built up. Most importantly, he stayed calm until he could be heard again through the "stardust".