Key Points:

Helen Clark and John Key are now locked in a fight to the political death in which there can only be one winner.

The Herald's Mood of the Boardroom survey shows just over 90 per cent of the chief executives surveyed clearly believe Key will make the best Prime Minister.

Key has also emerged as the clear winner on the campaign trail, with CEOs according him an 3.5 average performance rating (on a 1-5 scale) against Clark's 3.0 rating.

This is a major turnaround from 2005 when Clark's performance comprehensively trumped that of former National leader Don Brash.

The stakes are riding high for Clark.

She has contested four elections as Labour's leader and notched up three wins. If Clark manages to pull off a fourth victory, she will enter the history books as one of New Zealand's most successful prime ministers.

The election also comes at a critical time for New Zealand. The economy has been in recession for three quarters and conditions will get tougher next year presenting huge challenges to the next government.

Key has now donned his gladiator robes to try and arrest this political Boadicea in her tracks.

But for Clark it's open war as she refuses to concede any points, even using the launch of her politcal campaign to announce a Government guarantee to protect depositors.

The ratings the chief executives have assigned to the pair, suggest the election could still go either way despite National's persistent poll lead over Labour.

Clark dominates on leadership skills, rating an average 3.9 to Key's 3.6 on the 1-5 scale. She also outranks her opponent on other political attributes such as experience and the ability to form a coalition.

These judgments are under-scored by the fact that Clark has already lined up the Greens as a potential coalition partner ahead of the election. Key - who burnt off NZ First by stating he would not have its leader Winston Peters in a National Government - has narrowed his options.

But chief executives were critical of Clark's determination to keep Peters in her court during the long-runing Owen Glenn affair, slating it as power for power's sake even if it compromises values.

They are looking to Key to inject new energy to lift New Zealand's spirits during troubling times and rate him an average 4.0 on his vision and strategy for NZ above Clark's 2.5 rating. They think he will put New Zealand's interest over his party's and believe he has the courage and management skills - including at economic level - to be successful.

What will gall Clark is that Key also outstrips her on trustworthiness, rating 4 on the 1-5 scale against her 2.6 score. An ironic result given she has declared "this election is about trust".

ASB Bank managing director Hugh Burrett says Clark's political experience and tight control of her party is impressive. "John Key has yet to develop those attributes although his vision and commitment will balance these developing traits."

Chief executives like his"freshness" and "pragmatism."

"Key, being younger, hasn't the benefit of years of experience but he is used to challenges and getting results. We need a change and he is the person that should be given a go. Helen Clark wants a fourth term so much it is affecting her judgment," says an infrastructure chief.

Those who believe Clark is best suited to continue as Prime Minister, cite her "strength," "principles" and "maturity as a leader".

"Key does not seem to have a principled position on anything - so could go any way on some key issues according to how he reads the electorate, rather that adopt what is right," notes a food manufacturer.

At a time when prudent fiscal management is imperative, neither political leader has put all their cards on the table. But Clark and Key are fast making plans to address the financial crisis.

"The deficits forecast are huge and the New Zealand economy is on its last legs," said a major investor.

"There needs to be a complete turnaround in attitude to partnership with the private sector - it has been battered almost into non-existence and needs strong signals that its role and future is respected and that there will be rewards for delivery - tax cuts provide some support for the rhetoric."

Clark plans a December mini-budget to pump some ballast into the economy. Meantime she will leverage the banking crunch for all its worth.

Key is sticking to National's personal tax-cutting scenario and is pledging his party would try and tide over the tough times by redeploying cash raised from bank guarantee fees to help New Zealanders who lose jobs.

Overshadowing the promises is a concern that their election pledges will become fiscally unsustainable.

International crisis a key factor hanging over voter considerations

Prime Minister Helen Clark wants to time the announcement for maximum political effect by unveiling the measures just one week out from the November 8 election.

But Michael Cullen has since taken shadow Finance Minister Bill English into his confidence after National kicked up at the constitutional propriety of an incumbent Government potentially binding its successor with a huge contingent liability on the eve of a general election.

ASB Bank managing director Hugh Burrett says it is important that the "Government gets it right".

If it is not successfully negotiated, liquidity would reduce with a resultant run-on effect to customers.

All finance sector survey respondents report New Zealand firms face much tighter credit conditions.

Commercial property developers are particularly affected as banks pull funding for risky projects.

ABN Amro chief executive Simon Allen says the crunch is hitting the construction sector hard, with building suppliers and retailers now facing a very difficult time.

"I am deeply concerned at the level of financial capital availability to New Zealand business," says Allen. "It's affecting large companies as well as SMEs."

He warns if currency volatility is not arrested, "we may see an exodus of businesses to more stable environments".

Barfoot & Thompson director Peter Thompson expects the next 12 months to be slow going for the property sector. Thompson notes second tier lending has dried up since the collapse of the finance companies sector, with banks already reducing lending thresholds. He cautions banks should not "over-correct" to compensate for previous lending practices. If home-owners buy and sell in the same market they will not be too adversely affected.