Key Points:

National is a clear favourite to best steer the economy through an international downturn, according to a new Herald-DigiPoll survey taken just days out from the election.

The economy is at the forefront of voters' minds - ranking well ahead of other issues such as law and order, leadership and tax cuts as the issue most likely to influence votes on Saturday.

When asked whether a Labour-led government or a National-led one would better handle the New Zealand economy as the world faces a downturn, 49.6 per cent of respondents gave John Key's party their support.

Helen Clark's Labour was behind on 40.7 per cent - an 8.9-point gap that is not enormous but is larger than what has been seen in some earlier polls that have asked the same or a similar question. The rest - 9.7 per cent - either didn't know or refused to answer the question.

With just two days to go until New Zealanders cast their ballots, the poll results suggest National is winning the battle to convince voters who would be the best economic manager.

Underlining this is the strong support National also enjoys when it comes to which party voters think will lead the next government.

National rated 49.5 per cent, and Labour was trailing on 36.8 per cent. National's backing is particularly strong among males, with 56 per cent of men naming the party as the best handler of the economy and 52.9 per cent thinking it will lead the next government.

The financial difficulty the next government will face was foreshadowed on Tuesday when updated Crown accounts showed the operating balance plunging $757 million into the red as at September 30. It had been forecast to be in surplus by $943 million.

The main reason for the deficit was the severe buffeting investment funds like the New Zealand Super Fund have been taking because of turmoil on financial markets.

However, the deterioration in the Government's books was not unexpected and both National and Labour used the fresh information to claim to have the better approach to getting the economy through the downturn.

There is now little doubt that the economy is on the minds of voters and in the DigiPoll survey it got 32 per cent support as the issue most likely to influence votes.

It was clearly ahead of the second-placed law and order, which registered 19.2 per cent, and leadership came third at 14.5 per cent.

* The poll of 700 people was conducted between October 29 and November 2 and has a margin of error of 3.7 per cent.