Key Points:

Kaikohe is home to an electorate office of Northland Labour candidate Shane Jones - and its presence is making a difference in the township in his race against long-time MP and National candidate John Carter.

All around the region it was Mr Carter's name - not Mr Jones' - that was first to spring to voters' lips when they were asked who was standing.

But in Kaikohe, the "hub of the North", where voters encountered the bold, red Labour office on the main street, awareness of Mr Jones' mission to win Northland was higher.

"You can't miss it," said one shopkeeper.

The former Maori Fisheries Commission chairman is giving Mr Carter - an MP for more than 20 years and Northland's representative for six terms - with one of his toughest challenges yet.

Mr Carter told the Herald the Labour candidate - a rising political figure who became a Cabinet minister in his first term - was the first "credible candidate" the party had put up against him.

But he was confident of success against his parliamentary rugby team teammate.

Last election, he won the seat with 54 per cent of the candidate vote, compared with Mr Jones' 24 per cent. National won the greatest share of the party vote in Northland in 2005, taking 46 per cent to Labour's 30. A boundary change taking in rural areas near Wellsford, just North of Auckland, theoretically favoured National.

At 21 and 16 respectively in their parties' lists, Mr Carter and Mr Jones are almost assured of entry to Parliament without winning the seat,

Voters' awareness of Mr Jones in Kaikohe does not necessarily translate into votes. Mr Carter has wide appeal, even for constituents who do not support National.

"I just try not to think about it when I'm ticking his name," said Glenyss Ashton-Peach, of Ohaeawai.

Ms Ashton-Peach had dealt with Mr Carter and was happy with the result. Mr Jones, in contrast, was "unproven".

But Harvard graduate Mr Jones is developing a track record.

He said his party had not had success in Northland since the 1940s, and it was rare for a Labour candidate to stand in the seat in consecutive elections - but he was.

The vast Northland electorate - which runs from Wellsford and Leigh up to Cape Reinga, excluding Whangarei - is an unusual stronghold for National.

Its people break many of the stereotypes of right-leaning voters - it has a poor population and many people out of work. Parliamentary figures Northland had the lowest median family income of all general electorates in 2006 - $43,500 compared with $59,000 nationally - and the lowest proportion of paid employees.

A common theory was that the large proportion of residents who chose to go on the Maori roll reduced the number of left-leaning voters in the general seat.

The other three general electorates north of Auckland - Whangarei, Rodney and Helensville - were also won by National last election.

Far North Maori electorate Te Tai Tokerau was claimed by the Maori Party's Hone Harawira in 2005 and a Marae-DigiPoll survey last weekend indicated his position was likely to be safe this time. Of 400 voters surveyed, 69 per cent intended to vote for the incumbent, with closest rival Labour's Kelvin Davis on 26 per cent.

No similar poll results for Northland were available.

Mr Jones said a telephone survey of about 130 people by his team a fortnight ago indicated about a third had not decided who would get their vote.

He could not say how many replied they would vote for him but said the results suggested more in the North were becoming aware he was standing there.

When the Herald visited Northland, crime and the costs of developing land and carrying out home improvements were top concerns for many voters.

At a Kerikeri Business and Professional Women's Club meeting, Mr Jones was asked about the mainstreaming of special needs students in schools, the crime rate and his aspirations.

In the wider electorate, voters said they wanted real promises from politicians and were sick of being offered bribes to win votes.

In Kaitaia, builder Joe Murray, 51, an undecided voter, was worried about law and order but was cynical about promises to boost police numbers.

"It's ironic that both parties seem to want to up the numbers of police right before the election."

Sitting MP: John Carter
Party: National
Age: 58
Background: Elected as MP in 1987 and has represented Northland for six terms.

Main challenger: Shane Jones
Party: Labour
Age: 49
Background: Former Maori Fisheries Commission chairman and Labour list MP since 2005.

Sitting MP: Hone Harawira
Party: Maori Party
Age: 53
Background: Founding member of the Maori Party in 2004, elected in 2005.

Main challenger: Kelvin Davis
Party: Labour
Age: 41
Background: A political novice who is an intermediate school principal in Kaitaia.


John Carter doesn't have a spotless record but voters in the Far North don't seem to mind.

In June, Mr Carter took a week away from Parliament at the request of National leader John Key after he swore at a police officer. The Northland MP apologised following an angry exchange with an officer who stopped him for failing to indicate.

But perhaps Mr Carter's most memorable indiscretion was in March 1995, when the then-senior whip rang up Radio Pacific and impersonated a Maori dole bludger named "Hone". The radio host was former National MP John Banks - now Auckland's mayor - who was a friend of Mr Carter.

But many Northland voters roll their eyes and smile over the MP's follies.

Many spoke of him having a common touch and a sense of humour.

"He seems to be a bit of a people person," said Karla Tawhai, a Kaikohe florist and gift shop owner who went to school with Mr Carter's children.

While serious about his role as an MP, Mr Carter gave a well-worn description of the campaign trail as "patting babies and kissing mothers".

"I've given up kissing babies," Mr Carter told the Herald. "It's much nicer to kiss the mothers."