New Zealanders are renowned for their humility and tend to view the mass euphoria that characterises US political campaigning with suspicion. But when Jacinda Ardern visited a university last week, the prime minister was mobbed by students demanding selfies, as if she was a celebrity.
The 40-year-old politician, who assumed power in 2017 by riding a wave of popular support dubbed "Jacinda-mania", is polling so high in the run-up to next month's election that some analysts predict the Labour party could form the Pacific nation's first single party government since 1996.
Ardern has won plaudits for her decisive handling of Covid-19, which included sealing New Zealand's borders and imposing a strict lockdown that has limited the number of deaths to 25 people.
Her empathetic response to the murder of 51 Muslims in Christchurch last year by a white supremacist and a deadly volcanic eruption on Whakaari Island has elevated her status beyond that of a traditional politician.
"We have not seen a leader manage to rise above the political fray like this in a very long time," said Bronwyn Hayward, professor of politics at University of Canterbury.
Ardern has displayed remarkable communication skills during multiple national crises and retains high trust and confidence among the public, she said.
A 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton Poll published on Tuesday showed Labour on 48 per cent and the centre right National party on 31 per cent.
Labour is being aided by the disarray within the National party, which has changed leader three times since February 2018. Todd Muller stepped down in July, citing health concerns and was replaced by Judith Collins.
The 61-year-old former lawyer is a combative politician, who earned the nickname "Crusher Collins" for proposing to destroy the cars of "boy racers" while serving as police minister.
"I was staggered to see the prime minister clearly not socially distancing with no mask just the other day," Collins said this week when photos emerged of Ardern posing with dozens of students at the Massey University campus during a Covid-19 lockdown.
She accused Ardern of hypocrisy given her imposition of one of the world's strictest Covid-19 lockdowns, which includes social distancing restrictions in Auckland owing to a recent outbreak that broke a 102 days run with no new locally transmitted cases.
Ardern, who worked for a period in the British Cabinet Office under former prime minister Tony Blair, apologised for the incident.
Wellington's hardline strategy to eliminate Covid-19, rather than suppress the spread of the virus, has been criticised for damaging the economy. Last month President Donald Trump singled out New Zealand, warning of a "big surge" in cases.
However, strong public approval for the government's handling of the pandemic has blunted opposition attacks and failed to galvanise the National party's traditional supporters in the business community.
"Most New Zealanders look at the rest of the world and recognise that this is a good place to be," said Justin Murray, chairman of Murray & Co, an investment bank. "The average voter understands the government has done a reasonable job on Covid and I think Labour will get the benefit of that at the ballot box."
He said Collins was an effective politician but was struggling to detach herself from the turbulence and mis-steps of some of her party colleagues. ACT New Zealand, a rightwing, libertarian party that proposed to cut taxes and cut public spending could pick up some National supporters, said Murray.
In the first televised leaders' debate on Tuesday, Collins focused on plans to temporarily cut income tax to put an extra $3,000 in the pockets of middle-income earners over the next 16 months to boost the economy.
The policy has been attacked by Labour, which argues the Nationals are stuck in an impossible "Bermuda Triangle" where they want to increase spending, reduce revenue and cut debt all at the same time.
In contrast, Labour is proposing to increase the top rate of income tax on people earning more than $180,000 a year to 39 per cent, up from 33 per cent.
"We think that's an important policy so that everyone is pitching into our recovery," Grant Robertson, New Zealand's minister of finance told the Financial Times.
Despite its poll lead, Labour could become vulnerable to accusations that it has failed to deliver on ambitious promises to tackle child poverty, build 100,000 affordable homes and introduce capital gains taxes.
"On the left there is a lot of discontent with this government for not being as transformational as people would like," said Grant Duncan of Massey University.
"But what were they expecting given they [Labour] had New Zealand First [a populist party] acting like a 'dog in a manger' as coalition partners."
Analysts expect Labour's lead to narrow before the October 17 election, as Collins benefits from more airtime.
And Labour's coalition partners, NZ First and the Greens, could struggle to win 5 per cent of the popular vote, the threshold that guarantees them seats in parliament.
"If there is no new Covid-19 outbreak before the election that can be blamed on the government then Jacinda Ardern is probably pretty safe to return to office. But what other political parties will be around for a coalition remains to be seen," said Duncan.
Written by: Jamie Smyth
© Financial Times