By Graham Skellern
Monday morning and Winston Peters has gone to church. It's the Methodist Church in Puriri St, Mount Maunganui.
Peters starts the week in a playful manner: "I'm always a bit worried about having a meeting in a church given the record of the United Future Party."
But, really, the wily politician is in his element.
He is kicking off the final two weeks of the campaign addressing 60 New Zealand First supporters. Given how he and his party have fared in the polls lately, it could be the most crucial fortnight of his 24-year political career.
The meeting begins with the national anthem. Peters, immaculately dressed in his trademark double-breasted suit, pressed white shirt and red, black and gold striped tie, hums the anthem.
But when the singing is over, Peters makes plenty of sound. He's immediately focused and quickly firing on all cylinders as he rolls through another stirring speech.
He tells his supporters he's proud to be the MP for Tauranga and he's proud to have lived in the city for more than 21 years. "I've never taken the role nor the job of representing the city for granted. Everyone knows where Tauranga is and who the MP is.
"I ask you: do you know who's the MP for Whangarei, Napier, Invercargill?" One of the supporters replies: "Tim Shadbolt". Quick as a flash, Peters points out Tim's the mayor, not the MP.
Forever an audacious politician, Peters says he's the envy of all MPs because he represents one of the most beautiful, vibrant, exciting and fastest-growing cities in the country.
Peters is in full flight now. He has a range of gesticulations - pointing his index finger, raising both his hands at the same time, then just his thumb and even just two fingers; at times he bounces on his feet as he flows through the speech.
"We have made more progress, and at greater speed, than any other city. And we have to keep moving forward," he says.
He has an economic plan for the city and the region. New Zealand First will immediately cut business tax to 30 per cent and export earnings will be taxed at 20 per cent. There will be tax rebates for research and development.
His party will get the dollar and interest rates down (the dollar is 20 per cent higher than it should be), take GST off petrol (worth 17c a litre) and increase the minimum wage to $12 an hour.
Peters, the great political survivor, finishes his speech by encouraging his supporters to spread the word. "We are not going to lose this campaign in Tauranga. If I had my way, I'd ban polls in the last four weeks of a campaign. I've seen polls that have borne no resemblance to the result."
Out of the church, his driver Tom Gear takes him to an innovative small business in Mark Rd. Peters talks with Bill Bloomfield, managing director of Parehaka Minerals, which mines sodium bentonite on his family farm near Gisborne and turns it into cat litter and a milk and meal additive for calves.
Half of Parehaka's earnings come from exports. Peters suggests to Mr Bloomfield that the New Zealand dollar can't be helping his business.
"We can't export to the United States because of the high dollar. We may look at it in 12 months but it's not for us at the moment," Mr Bloomfield tells Peters.
"We've got to bring the dollar down from its artificial level; it's 20 per cent too high," Peters responds. "Four years ago exporters were doing pretty well but at US70c a lot of them are up against it."
Mr Bloomfield replies: "There are lots of little businesses tucked away in industrial areas like these. If you can do something and get the dollar and interest rates down that will sure help small businesses."
When he's campaigning, Peters keeps a punishing schedule. The adrenaline is flowing and there's no dilly-dallying. He leaves Parehaka Minerals and heads to the Phoenix Shopping Centre carpark in downtown Mount Maunganui for an impromptu street meeting.
There's another one later in the afternoon at the Greerton Village. A dark-grey New Zealand First Toyota Estima Lucida van shadows Peters, parks and connects him to a cable, microphone and loudspeaker system so he can strut his stuff in the street.
It's the old soapbox approach. Passers-by slow down and eventually mingle and listen to the MP for Tauranga.
Peters also fits in a studio session at Radio Live recording his latest advertising, a photo session on the Mount beach for the Agenda TV programme, and another meeting with the residents of the Orange Grove Village in Pyes Pa - all before 4.30pm.
I remember back at Radio Live in the Westpac building asking Peters about lunch and he told me he didn't do lunch: "It's like playing rugby, it's very hard to campaign on a full stomach."
When we wandered out of the Westpac building Peters at least settles for coffee at Bravo Restaurant in Mid-City Mall (he's holding his triennial rally there next Thursday).
Peters gazes at the menu and decides to order a beef sandwich. "But I thought you didn't campaign on a full stomach?" I inquire.
"I feel hungry," Peters replies. The contradiction of the charming politician surfaces. The coffees arrive, he has latte, but the meals take longer and Peters fidgets. Then he's off without eating, remembering the photo session on the beach.
I'm left with Peters' campaign manager, American John Foote, who takes over Peters' meal. That's team work. It's time for me to figure out the campaign strategy.
Mr Foote, who is standing as the NZ First candidate in Coromandel, plays the numbers game. At the last election in 2002, 38 per cent of people who voted for the Labour Party gave Peters their electorate vote; 41 per cent who voted National also backed Peters in the electorate.
He ended up with a massive margin of 10,362, taking 52 per cent of the total vote. Yet NZ First finished alongside National on 22 per cent, with Labour winning the party vote on 32 per cent.
"Our message to the people of Tauranga hasn't changed: 'Re-elect Winston as our MP'. In this city people don't see him representing a party; they see him as their MP. That's a big difference - just look at the numbers," says Mr Foote, who is managing Peters' second successive campaign.
"NZ First as a party does not hold the majority in Tauranga, yet Winston can get 52 per cent of the electorate vote. He'd be happy just being the MP for Tauranga."
Mr Foote, who has a degree in public administration and worked with American politicians, got involved with NZ First after Peters helped him get New Zealand citizenship in 1999.
"I like the guy," says Mr Foote. "He makes me laugh, he's intelligent and the NZ First policies are quite traditional. They are the Kiwi values of good healthcare and education, keeping the place safe and treating everyone equally."
Peters grew up in the small coastal settlement of Whananaki, 40km northeast of Whangarei, with his six brothers and four sisters.
"It used to have the biggest one-day sporting event in the country when the timber was being exported from the wharf. The forests are denuded now. Hundreds of people around the area would come by horseback for the event," says Peters.
His parents, Len and Joan, had a dairy farm - his 94-year-old mother still lives in Whananaki - and they were also sharemilkers on another property near Dargaville.
Peters attended three high schools - Hukerenui, Whangarei Boys and Dargaville - before studying at North Shore Teachers College. He taught for a year and saved enough money to enter Auckland University, gaining a BA Degree in History and Political Studies. He then went to Australia and chased the big pay in the mines - "if you worked double shifts of 16 hours you could earn $800-$900 a week with free board; that was big pay back in 1970".
He earned enough to return home and complete an LLB at Auckland University - at the same time he starred in rugby. A speedy and elusive first or second five-eight, Peters was part of the Auckland University team that won the senior championship, he captained the Auckland Maori side and played two invitation games for New Zealand Maori.
For three years he flatted with rugby mates Dave and Gary Palmer, who later tragically died in the Erebus crash.
Peters entered the law profession in 1973, working in the commercial area for Russell McVeagh and then Davenports in Auckland. He became a National Party Dominion councillor - and his political interest was ignited.
He won the Hunua seat in 1978 but was defeated three years later. He returned to law, setting up his own firm - Winston R Peters - in Howick and building it to eight staff.
A late-night call from fellow lawyer Ed Morgan in Tauranga changed everything. Bob Jones's New Zealand Party was becoming a force and Mr Morgan tells Peters: "There's a race on here. If you come, you can win it."
Peters replies: "Crikey, it's only three days before nominations close; that's a short time to get involved."
He won the party nomination and then in the snap election of July 1984 increased National's majority in Tauranga from 1800 to 4900 votes.
"I bucked the trend by increasing the local vote," Peters says.
The rest is history. Winston Raymond Peters has gone on to become one of the country's most colourful and charismatic politician - changing courses along the way.
He was sacked from the National Cabinet in 1991, left the party in March 1993 and a month later retained the Tauranga seat as an independent, winning 90.8 per cent of the vote in a by-election. He founded NZ First in July 1993, winning two seats in Parliament that year and increasing them to 17 three years later. It was enough to form a coalition with National and Peters became Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, which lasted 20 months until the coalition broke down.
My first inkling of Peters' support came during the long "wine box" inquiry in the mid-90s. I covered each day of the two-year inquiry for the New Zealand Herald. This particular morning there was more hubbub than normal as I trudged out of the lift and into the inquiry room.
This day Peters was in the witness box. I looked around and saw all these grey-haired elderly people wearing black and white rosettes. They had travelled by bus from Tauranga to Auckland to hear their man.
They sat at the back of the room and every time Peters made a strong point they clapped and cheered. It got so out of hand that the commissioner Sir Ronald Davidson had to respectfully remind them that "this is a commission of inquiry and could they remain quiet while the witness is giving his evidence". I looked at the Peters' supporters curiously.
Today in Tauranga, is the diehard support for Peters waning? Sitting quietly and listening to Peters at the Mount street meeting on Monday is Paul Kruger. He suddenly interjects: "Winston, I've voted three times for you but I'm not sure this time. I haven't heard much from you lately."
Peters swings around and tells Mr Kruger: "Since the last week of January I've had more meetings than any other political leader. What have I got to do to swing your vote?"
I sidle up to Mr Kruger, who tells me: "I've nothing against Winston but I just feel there's something missing with him this election. He's holding back on things. He used to be all for New Zealand and I have a feeling he's gone off a bit."
During his busy campaign schedule, I catch some quiet moments interviewing Peters on a park bench at the racecourse and in the back seat of his car.
Peters doesn't believe he and his party have lost any momentum. "We represent moderate, commonsense, centre-of-the-road policies. We are not a cling-on party and we are not for sale. Because of the principles we stand for ... we need a strong voice in Parliament."
Peters has plans for Tauranga. "Over the next three years, I will pursue tax concessions for exporters who send finished products through the port. If they import raw materials, add value to them and re-export them then they should only pay tax when the profits come in.
"The city needs a 300-room international hotel to attract big New Zealand and Australian conferences, we have a new hospital coming, clearly greater resources have to be put into policing and we have to complete the transport infrastructure."
Peters wants all petrol taxes to go into roading, there shouldn't be tolls and he believes no project should be held up ... "money can be advanced on the back of guaranteed revenue over the next 10 years".
During his political career, a dogged Peters has fought and won several high-profile legal battles and the challenges have personally cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars.
To pay his legal bills he had to sell his Otumoetai house, the old Cooney family home, and for the past eight years he has boarded with a couple living in the same area. "I'm their adopted son."
Peters, who has two grown-up children - Joel and Brittany, stays in the downstairs flat of his uncle and aunty's Ngaio house when he's in Wellington.
Peters has kept his beach property and two boats in Whananaki near Sandy Bay. And he does have one personal dream. "I would like to own a home in Tauranga that has a good sea view. But there's too much happening for me to worry about that," he says, as he heads off to another political meeting - and another stirring debate.
By Graham Skellern