One came spoiling for a brawl as the other tried to remain aloof. Ultimately, neither got what they came for.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Opposition leader Judith Collins, in the first televised head-to-head debate of the election, showed their colours in their demeanours as much as in their words.
The debate was served hot on the heels of a 1News/Colmar Brunton poll showing Labour on 48 per cent — enough to govern alone. National was at 31 per cent, which was a one percentage point drop on the previous poll.
Collins appeared keen to portray the poor polling as motivating to her. She said she was "a fighter" and previous Opposition leaders would have "crawled over broken glass" for that level of support.
Later in the evening, she said the poll showed National had a "challenge" on its hands, but reiterated she "loves a fight".
The hour-long prime-time debate allowed Collins to do what she has largely failed to do on the campaign, where she has frequently looked lacklustre and flat-footed. In front of the television cameras, she bristled with energy and verve.
In contrast, Jacinda Ardern went to great pains to try to appear calm, unflapped by Collins' interjections and Campbell's questioning. The strategy didn't impress many commentators, who scored Collins a clear winner, perhaps as much for her animated presence as the political points scored. Ardern's occasional flinches and pained expressions revealed just how difficult this was at times.
The Government's child poverty record was where Collins' got the closest to breaking Ardern's detachment. Sensing a chink, the National leader gripped her lecturn even harder and repeatedly said child poverty had worsened under Ardern's watch, when looking at the material hardship measure.
Ardern finally conceded it was "difficult to stand by" and listen to Collins on the topic. Her strength of purpose finally flashed to the surface with: "I am not done with child poverty."
For most of the debate, Ardern outlined her Government's record, and what it planned to do, if re-elected. Her hands gestured one over the other as if gently climbing ascending steps.
But she did take aim at National's plan to give everyone a tax cut for 16 months, but the people on the highest wages would benefit the most.
Ardern plaintively stated: "I shouldn't get a tax cut," to which Collins retorted, "Well, give it back then."
There has been some criticism of host John Campbell for not pushing the pace but he was not who viewers tuned in for.
Why isn’t John cutting them off after the ding?? #Leadersdebate— Maybe: Macca 2020 🇳🇿🏖 (@KiwiSAHD) September 22, 2020
So far, both leaders will hope to have swayed some of the undecided 14 per cent of voters they covet. Both parties will be straw-polling reactions to their performances in the debate and it will be interesting to see whether they change strategies next time.
The next scheduled leaders' debate is September 30, on Three, hosted by Patrick Gower. The final debate is on October 15, on TVNZ 1, moderated by Jessica Mutch McKay.
A combative Collins or an optimistic Ardern: Right now, choosing between them has never been clearer.