By BERNARD ORSMAN and LOUISA CLEAVE



The worm wriggled into the election campaign last night and turned towards the commonsense answers of United Future leader Peter Dunne.



Nearly every time the leader of the struggling centrist party gave his views on key issues the electronic worm - representing the views of 100 undecided voters - took a sharp climb in a Holmes leaders' debate.



For example, Mr Dunne's suggestion to integrate public and private health systems to provide the best in health care scored highly with the worm and even had Prime Minister Helen Clark and Act's Richard Prebble scrambling in agreement.

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The worm's next best friend was New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, who tickled the worm on the three issues he is running at this election - immigration, crime and the Treaty of Waitangi.



The worm also liked it when Mr Peters produced the most memorable interjection, when National Party leader Bill English was speaking about a combined health board deficit the size of the Bank of New Zealand bailout.



"When I raised the BNZ you tried to kick me out of caucus," Mr Peters told his former National Party colleague.



Helen Clark managed to keep the worm hovering above the middle line for most of the 90-minute televised debate. Good examples were her performances on rural health and the teachers dispute, where she kept the worm onside - but only just.



Mr English struggled to turn the worm his way, as did Alliance leader Laila Harre.



The worm burrowed down for Greens' co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons on decriminalising cannabis and an open-ended agenda to Treaty of Waitangi settlements.



It also swung against her on Corngate, where greater credence was given to Helen Clark's denial of a cover up.



Progressive Coalition leader Jim Anderton failed to connect with the worm the way he did at the 1996 election and at the end of the night he shared last place with Jeanette Fitzsimons and Act leader Richard Prebble.



Mr Prebble's message of zero tolerance on crime had the worm squirming in the positive, but his overall showing did not.



The voters were selected by Television New Zealand's polling company, Colmar Brunton. Each voter had a worm dial for approval or disapproval.



Reactions were fed into a computer and averaged to create the slithering worm.



It did not appear at the last election but made a big impact during the 1996 election, when it riled National leader Jim Bolger and represented a turning point in Helen Clark's fortunes.



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