When Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins meet in the first televised leaders' debate tomorrow, each will be seeking not just to communicate their policies and probe their opponents' weaknesses. They will also be trying to define a campaign that has looked somewhat shapeless.
John Key's "show me the money" line to David Cunliffe stands as a classic knockout blow for the leaders to emulate, but also a reminder of a different time.
In 2014, and the last decade, the difference between producing a $100 million budget surplus and a $100m deficit has been treated as a matter of political life and death.
It's a measure of the bizarre post-Covid world that, confronted with a genuine accounting error with the effect of about $1.7 billion yesterday, National finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith simply admitted his mistake and moved on.
The consequence was that National's fiscal plan ended with a national debt of around 36 per cent of GDP instead of 35 per cent in 2035, he shrugged.
Similarly, while Ardern and Robertson attacked the "irresponsibility" of National's proposed tax cuts, and linked it to warning about cuts to essential public services, the reality is the tax package is marginal to National's spending calculations, such are the sums involved.
Its promise of a temporary movement of tax brackets delivers up to $58 a week extra in the hand for taxpayers earning $90,000 or more. Importantly, it gives voters a tangible figure, an understandable frame of reference beyond the numbingly huge sums thrown around since the beginning of the pandemic.
It is a huge promise for any normal election and, like Goldsmith's fudged figure, a rounding error in 2020.
Defining the election by fiscal prudence is out the window, no matter how much either party would like to do so.
Labour is also offering spoils to its voters — doubled sick leave, an extra public holiday, and further boosts to the minimum wage beyond the $20 per hour slated for next year. But the cost is being put on the private sector.
Collins would clearly like to focus on competence and "delivery", if her campaign launch yesterday was anything to go by. It was a stronger hand to play when Kiwibuild and Auckland light rail were the dominant political issues of the day, and before National appointed a slew of reserve bench Key-English timecard punchers into its shadow cabinet.
Instead, just as Ardern will be setting out to show National does not care about essential government services and Covid elimination, Collins' challenge is to prove that Jacinda Ardern — whose brand is kindness and empathy — does not care about jobs or business in the face of a depressingly long economic downturn forecast by Treasury.
This is the sixth of a series of guest columns from five political experts running in the Herald until election day.
Tomorrow: Shane Te Pou
Wednesday: Richard Prebble
Thursday: David Cormack
Friday: Josie Pagani
Tomorrow's leaders' debate is on TVNZ1 at 7.30pm
* Ben Thomas is a public relations consultant and is a former journalist and former press secretary to Chris Finlayson.