Concerns are growing in the business community and in his own party about whether National leader Christopher Luxon is quite up to it.
No one doubts Luxon is National's best available leader. His catching the cost of living wave has National polling ahead of Labour for the first time since Covid. He's even money to be prime minister in 18 months.
But Luxon was sold as the new John Key. His recent wonky political judgment has some checking the warranty.
The problem is not Luxon's technical skill in front of a microphone, camera or business audience. While he'll never match Key or Jacinda Ardern's easy manner working a room, his years in senior executive roles mean he's had enough media training to equal either in sounding plausible while affably dodging questions and parroting banalities.
The bigger short-term problem — including ahead of the Budget which National must successfully deconstruct and the Tauranga by-election it must win handsomely — is Luxon seeming not to share Key's personal hunger, extraordinary general knowledge, zeal to learn more and political dexterity.
Their business careers may explain why. Key was away from New Zealand for just six years, compared with Luxon's 16. Luxon's gaps in knowledge of New Zealand's recent economic, political and social history is that much greater, and it shows.
Moreover, Key's career was in foreign exchange and investment banking, which demand and develop exceptional inquisitiveness and the widest possible general knowledge. Given a microphone, Key could ad-lib a world-class account of the global economy, where New Zealand fits into it and our challenges ahead, and even link that back to a few policy ideas.
Luxon's career was more focused on specific products, markets and operations. His range is narrower.
In politics, Key had to squeeze out an incumbent National MP from the safe Helensville seat, learning about the factions, culture and inner workings of the party. Luxon cruised from running the state-owned airline and chairing Ardern's business advisory council to an open vacancy in Botany.
Key then spent four years in Parliament, mostly sponging up information about the strands of New Zealand on which he knew he was weak. Luxon had just 13 months and it isn't clear how widely he networked and read, or even if he recognised the need.
These differences help explain why Luxon doesn't sound as sophisticated, contemporary and fleet-footed as Key did 15 years ago.
While Key quickly positioned himself as a Burnside boy done good, wanting to help the underclass, Luxon has allowed himself to be framed as the Remuera businessman who wants to give his $2 million-a-year neighbours a $2000-a-week tax cut.
He has offered the middle class no convincing solution to the cost of living crisis but firmly cemented the idea that Grant Robertson deserves the blame for rising inflation, and therefore the credit when it falls.
On co-governance, Luxon's waffle pleases neither end of the centre-right's Don Brash-to-Christopher Finlayson spectrum, nor many in between.
After talking a good game on National needing to be more diverse, he has allowed party officials to come up with a short-list of four white men for the Tauranga byelection. Act already has a candidate chosen, a campaign office open and hoardings on the streets. Labour plans to be mostly a spectator in that fight.
To the extent Luxon presents a policy programme, it is that outward-lookingness, infrastructure and innovation are needed to increase productivity in order to grow the economy to fund more social spending. That cash will be allocated using Bill English's social investment model, which the former finance minister and prime minister spent nine years developing but which was never quite implemented.
This story is not merely linear — not to mention pedestrian — but implicitly endorses Labour's narrative that the "economy" and "society" are different and competing concepts, with the former tolerated only because it supplies money for government programmes.
Luxon is not yet politically astute enough to argue, say, that making mental health services functional might be the quickest and most cost-effective way to raise productivity. His ideas for infrastructure involve the Wellington-based Infrastructure Commission putting together long-term plans able to withstand changes of government, and using undefined but innovative funding models to make them happen.
Similarly, Luxon believes innovation will solve disparities in health and education. He offers Act's charter schools as an example.
None of this is wrong, and if you think you've heard it before, it's because you have. It's warmed up, left-over Keyism, taken out of the freezer and put in the microwave 15 years after it was the cool new ready-meal flying off the shelves.
This doesn't necessarily mean platitudes won't be enough. In the current post-truth political environment, Ardern won her first election just by promising to "let's do this". She won her historic 50 per cent re-election even after it turned out that "this" was nothing at all.
The real worry about Luxon is not that he lacks Key's political strengths, but that he appears even less inclined than his mentor to make a difference as prime minister.
Luxon's message is that Labour's policy agenda — such as it is — is bad, but not bad enough to reverse anything if Labour manages to put it in place.
The closest to a substantive promise is replacing the proposed Māori Health Authority with a Māori Health Division within Health New Zealand. Expect the promise to abolish the 39 per cent top tax rate to be downgraded to an aspiration before election day.
If Key and Ardern still leave people wondering exactly why they wanted to be prime minister, Luxon risks sounding even more empty. Most alarmingly, that may even be true.
After all, this is someone who agreed with an interviewer that abortion is murder but promised not to do anything to stop those "murders" should he get into a position to do so. Even those of us who completely disagree with him on abortion were left asking what confidence we can have that he would be prepared to risk re-election by exercising his powers to do anything at all if his pollsters advised it wasn't safe.
New Zealand has been governed for a full generation by the whims of the median voter. The results are in on everything from productivity, infrastructure and climate change, to literacy and numeracy, mental health, housing, poverty, inequality, and law and order.
From Helen Clark, to Key, to Ardern, each government has been less ambitious, more poll-driven, lazier and more cynical than the one before. So far, Luxon gives little reason to think he would reverse that trend.