Key Points:

Being a sentimentalist, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters is returning to the venue of his party's launch 15 years ago for an election year convention.

The colourful start at Alexandra Park was full of expectation and while it was largely viewed as a bit peculiar, in many ways was a success, not unlike the party it has become.

The major glitch was that the audience watched from a glassed-in stand separated from Peters, on a podium below them in front of the stand, an oddity which remains the abiding memory of those who were there.

One journalist said Peters' speech was like him addressing a goldfish bowl.

At least 5000 had been expected and so what was actually a large crowd of 2000 was seen as small and looked rather empty in the vast stand.

The name "New Zealand First" was the slogan of the latter-day Liberal Party and some in the party were unhappy it had been commandeered.

The McGillicuddy Serious Party provided light entertainment, mock-trotting in front of the stands, while the crowd waited for the habitually late Peters. (The McGillicuddys were not without some standing: the party came second to Peters when, four months earlier, the ex-National MP held a byelection in Tauranga and nobody came.)

Peters' speech was broadcast live on Radio Pacific _ the station of the disaffected. The issues of the day were the hated super surtax and Peters' call for an inquiry into the bail-out of the BNZ.

Former Peters aide Sarah Neems helped to organise the Sunday launch and the speech that would unveil the "15 founding principles" of the party.

It was finished off at the offices of Peters' Auckland lawyer and friend, Brian Henry.

"I definitely remember that speech," she said this week. "We were writing the speech at Brian Henry's office in Auckland and with Winston chain-smoking behind me, dictating. I think it was finally finished at three in the morning."

She recalls there was some trouble getting the speech out of the system the next day, with the computer crashing "or there was some major crisis".

"Tension was high, shall we say, in typical Winston/New Zealand First fashion. But we got there in the end _ as we usually did."

Neems has retired from political involvement and is now a mother of two small boys and living in Queenstown.

She can't remember why Alexandra Park was chosen though it was probably simply because it could hold the thousands of people expected.

It was an early lesson that perception is as important as reality: that 1000 people crammed into a small space is much better than 2000 in a stand that holds 5000.

This year, one can be sure at least that the delegates to Alexandra Park and the leader will be in the same room.

If all goes according to plan, Peters will have just returned safely from a visit to Fiji with his Australian counterpart, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith.

Peters walks a lot of red carpets these days as Foreign Minister and while he has a greater air of respectability about him than those heady days of rebellion in 1993, a lot about him and his party has not changed.

He has always managed to attract enough competent people around him to make things happen and give attention to detail.

Neems was personal assistant to Peters in his years as an agitator in National and then an outcast from it.

Wanganui Mayor Michael Laws, an ex-National and ex-NZ First MP, was also a trusted adviser in the 90s especially in the run-up to the first MMP election in 1996 when he and Neems ran the campaign and wrote policy.

Laws, in his book The Demon Profession, written 10 years ago, displays a large degree of affection for Peters and graphically describes how the party got by despite inner chaos.

He describes Peters' "foibles" as he called them: "His obsessive secrecy, his disinclination to search the policy frontiers, his poor grasp of detail, a general disregard for administrative efficiency.

"Because of his refusal to delegate responsibility, he would always be prey to his closest advisers _ reliant on their information, perceptions and judgments."

Peters' chief adviser at present is Damian Edwards, a former political officer at the Australian High Commission _ reporting to Canberra on the political situation here.

He later got down from the diplomatic fence to become policy and strategy director to New Zealand First. Now he is also chief of staff, the party's chief negotiator with Labour on legislation, election strategist and chief press officer.

Peters relies on Edwards in his many absences overseas which have seen the six other MPs thrive, not least Doug Woolerton, who has more energy to devote to his agriculture spokesmanship since resigning as president when Peters took a ministerial post.

Woolerton, an old exile from National, helped form the party and sees its greatest success as being its survival _ something he puts down to Peters' force of character.

"You cannot start a political party with a boring bastard. You have to have an exceptional person that people will rally behind."

Peters has his contradictions, as Woolerton attests to.

He is viewed, by the media anyway, as one of the rudest and roughest politicians of modern time in Parliament. But that is not how he is in private, where manners are paramount and confrontation is usually avoided.

Woolerton says: "He is almost Victorian. For instance, he hates my swearing."

At the recent Fieldays event near Hamilton, the pair of them saw a dusty old ute displaying the sign "I wish my wife was as dirty as this ute".

"He was shocked by that. He thought that was just disgusting."

The sun shone on the new party and a little over three years after it was formed, it was playing "king-maker" in the first MMP Parliament, a term Peters detests.

There can be no doubt that New Zealand First's success was linked to the fizz of Peters' parallel campaigning about the Winebox and its contents detailing questionable big business dealings.

Peters, himself a former lawyer, has been a frequent litigant throughout his parliamentary career. He used the courts to get into Parliament, engaging the late Paul Temm to run his electoral petition in Hunua in 1979 against one of Labour royalty at the time, Malcolm Douglas, son of Norman and brother of Roger. Labour apparently booed the day that Peters was sworn into Parliament.

Brian Henry has been his main lawyer since the pair met in Wyatt Creech's successful electoral petition in Wairarapa.

Henry insists he is not a "litigious" client.

"I actually think that there is a very solid group of people out there who are scared of Winston and what he stands for and they will use financial muscle to try and stop him if they can."

Peters' heir apparent as leader, now that Brian Donnelly has been dispatched as High Commissioner to the Cook Islands, is Ron Mark.

Mark was not at the 1993 launch, standing for Labour in that election in Selwyn, against Ruth Richardson.

The party's policy successes, Mark says, are not just the big items such as getting rid of the surtax, and free doctors' visits for under-6-year-olds.

To his mind they are the policies that affect only small groups of people neither of the big parties touch: like supporting the Berrymans; compensation for Agent Orange; better pay for Defence Forces; getting rid of tolls on the Tauranga Bridge.

The former Army captain is a most loyal lieutenant to Peters, suggesting that if Peters has a fault, it is that he is too trusting of people.

He mentions Tau Henare, now a National MP, and Tuariki Delamere, two of the party defectors in 1998 who allowed Jenny Shipley to remain in power despite her sacking Peters.

He didn't mention Neil Kirton, a former associate health minister whose split from New Zealand First happened earlier, over repeated conflict with then Health Minister Bill English.

Success is not something Kirton associates with New Zealand First.

"If you call success clinging on to parliamentary office, in that sense it is successful. But in my view it has done so to the peril of its soul," Kirton says. "It remains almost entirely politically driven, that is the ability to tap into a wave of popular support and continue to surf that wave.

"Rather than driving a change in approach, it is in my view entirely opportunistic."

He was not all negative, however. Peters, he said, was "an extraordinary politician" and to give him his due, he had done well as Racing Minister.

Which may be as good a reason as any to return to Alexandra Park next week.

LIFE AND TIMES OF A POLITICAL BATTLER

ADVISERS

* Former National MP Ian Shearer

* Former MP Michael Laws

* Sarah Neems

* Former Police Association secretary Graham Harding

* Former school principal Ernie Davis

* Damian Edwards _ current

PERSONAL

* Aged 63. Divorced, with two adult children.

* Partner is Auckland businesswoman Jan Trotman.

* Peters is one of 11 children.

* Oldest brother Jim was a NZ First MP, 2002-05.

* Brother Ian Peters National MP 1990-93, then stood for NZ First.

* Brother Ron Peters stood for NZ First in 1993 and 1996.

* Sister Lynette Stewart chairs Northland District Health Board.

* Good friends include Tom Gear, Richard Griffin, Roger McLay, Philip Burdon, Richard Charters, Paul East.

* Sworn enemies include John Banks, Don Brash, David Carter, Michael Fay, David Richwhite and many journalists.

POLITICAL RECORD

1975 National candidate for Northern Maori in 1975 against Matiu Rata.

1979 Elected National MP for Hunua after taking electoral petition against Labour candidate Malcom Douglas. Loses Hunua in 1981.

1984 Won Tauranga

1990 Maori Affairs Minister

1991 Sacked as minister for criticising leadership.

1992 Expelled from National Party caucus.

1993 Feb Won byelection in Tauranga as independent. Launched NZ First in July. In the election, Peters won Tauranga again and Tau Henare won Northern Maori.

1996 Party took 17 seats in first MMP election. Nine got ministerial posts in coalition with National. Peters became Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister.

1998 Coalition ended when National PM Jenny Shipley sacked Peters from cabinet. Eight NZ First MPs defected from NZ First, allowing National to govern without Peters.

1999 Election NZ First came in under threshold with 4.3 per cent of party vote in election but Peters kept Tauranga by 63 votes. The party survived with five MPs.

2002 Election: Party rebounded with 13 seats and 10.4 per cent of party vote.

2005 Election: Peters lost Tauranga but party scraped in with 5.7 per cent of the vote and seven MPs. Peters made Foreign Minister outside Government in confidence and supply agreement with Labour.