Previous parliamentary experience stood New Zealand First's Wairarapa candidate Ron Mark in good stead during a lively and well-attended debate in Masterton on Thursday.

In a straw poll taken straight after the Wairarapa Times-Age-organised Meet the Candidates debate, Mr Mark was voted the best performer of the five candidates who took the stage in the Frank Cody Lounge. People were standing in the foyer.

Mr Mark, who is seeking to return to Parliament as a list MP, chalked up 12 years in the House from 1996 to 2008 and is being tipped as successor to Winston Peters as New Zealand First leader.

In 1993 Mr Mark stood for Labour in Selwyn, a true-blue National seat. Mr Mark was credited with giving forceful and direct answers and was judged a narrow winner over Labour's Kieran McAnulty and the Greens' John Hart.

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National Party candidate Alastair Scott lost points by consistently referring to notes - whereas the others largely spoke off the cuff - and for becoming rattled at times by hecklers.

Conservative Party candidate Brent Reid was under pressure at times from an audience that cut him little slack but he stood his ground on points such as parents' right to discipline children.

The wide-ranging debate broke away from the intended format of question and answer and issues broadened from how young people could be helped to achieve their goals and ambitions - along with building self-esteem and skills - to the Labour Party's policy of a capital gains tax, the anti-smacking debate, healthcare for children, education and decriminalising marijuana.

Mr Hart spoke on the need for warm, healthy homes, which he said 205,000 New Zealand children did not have the privilege of living in, the party's policy of providing free pre-school education for all children over 2 years old and labelled inequality as the biggest threat to New Zealand society."The gap between the rich and the poor has never been as large as it is today," he said.

Mr Reid said the most important thing was for children to have a "mum and dad family". He said Labour/Green policies were "destructive" towards families. "The more liberal society has become the worse it has been for children."

He said the anti-smacking law was " ridiculous" and parents had lost all authority in their own homes.

Mr Reid also reiterated the Conservative Party's opposition to same-sex marriage.

Mr McAnulty said a government had a responsibility to ensure every young person had an equal opportunity in life. He said Masterton was among the " most deprived towns in the country" and he criticised the National Government for its failures in education, especially at tertiary level.

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Mr Scott claimed the Labour and Green parties were "joined at the hip" and wanted to bring in new taxes. He said that was not what was needed, especially a capital gains tax and what Wairarapa needed was "more capital and water for irrigation".

Mr Mark spoke about extending free healthcare to all people under 18, the age where they could "join the military, vote and drink alcohol".

He pointed the finger at the National Government for slashing funding for the Ohorere programme for troubled teenagers and said he wanted the relationship between central government and local government to be better.