Key Points:

There's no doubt that in this general election, Helen Clark is wearing the pants in Labour's household.

In what will be her third attempt as Prime Minister to win the election for her party, she has placed herself firmly behind the driving wheel by declaring she is now Labour's chief political strategist, unlike the 2005 election when Cabinet Minister Pete Hodgson was in the box seat.

Hodgson is seen as a "good and loyal" trouper by top Labour ranks. But when it comes to outright cunning and stealth, Hodgson is not Clark's match, which is why he has been pushed aside.

The politician who recently warned her caucus colleagues to "put on their hard hats" and prepare for a hard-fought election is proving an adept strategist. She caught National off-foot by announcing the November 8 election date while its leader John Key was down country.

But at the tactical level, some decisions are backfiring. Clark says the election is about "trust". She reinforces that message by using "dog whistle" tactics which could have come from the Crosby Textor campaign textbook she usually decries.

Take last week's attempt to cover Key's hands with the blood of 60 New Zealand troops who would have "come home in body bags" if the National leader had been in Government in 2003. Clark used "back of the envelope figures" using pro-rata calculations based on the number fatalities of Americans killed in Iraq on a population basis, against New Zealand's population.

Even Australia, which committed to the "Coalition of the Willing", lost just two soldiers and through accident.

In the past she has deputed senior politicians such as Trevor Mallard or Phil Goff to be the party's attack dogs and rark up her opponents, but this time she is getting into the gutter.

The Prime Minister moved herself into the box seat after party president Mike Williams was caught out telling porkies to journalists over suggestions he made at Labour's annual conference suggesting that Labour could get some electoral benefit from Government advertising.

The party hierarchy is still clearly in the frame. Particularly Williams, who is Labour's chief fundraiser and party enforcer and general secretary Mike Smith, who has to keep tabs on the advertising spend to prevent a rerun of the 2005 campaign blowout.

Clark's chief of staff Heather Simpson - colloquially known as "H2" - is driving a considerable amount of policy formation and Cabinet ministers know it.

But when it comes to taking the credit (or the blame) for the election outcome, Clark has set herself up as numero uno. If Labour loses, it will be that much easier for caucus detractors to persuade her to stand aside so a new leader can be elected or roll her in a post-election coup.

Although senior colleagues do not say so publicly, among some of them there is considerable unease Clark has concentrated so much power at the top - "Doesn't she trust us?" one insider asked.

More importantly, if Labour ends up in another post-election spending scandal, Clark will be too close to the frontline to escape collateral damage.

National does not have an uber-fuhrer as strategist. What it has is a strategy team which has been meeting on a daily basis "for months now".

Key and his deputy Bill English are the major players. MPs Gerry Brownlee and National's long-time "svengali" Murray McCully are on the team. Other senior MPs such as Simon Power - who has been chairing the parliamentary privileges committee into billionaire Owen Glenn's $100,000 donation to New Zealand First leader Winston Peters - and Tony Ryall are frequent attendees.

National's campaign manager Steven Joyce is involved and senior staffers such as Wayne Eaglesen who is Key's "chief of staff" and senior press secretary Kevin Taylor.

There have been a few snafus along the way, in particular, the loss of caucus discipline which saw Cabinet Minister Trevor Mallard release four National election policies before the party made the formal launches.

But the more crucial issue has been policy formation which is under English's stewardship. There have been many embarrassing corrections issued after party spokespeople were asked simple questions on policy. National insiders do tend to get a bit impatient with English's methodical approach.

Party insiders expect author Nicky Hager, who wrote The Hollow Men, to try to drive a public wedge between English and Key by dropping more damaging emails during the election campaign.

Some clued up National MPs are even using digital tape-recorders to record their public utterances so they have a log of what has been said in case they are subject to a re-run of the secret recordings at their own annual conference.

United Future's Peter Dunne knows his party is hardly rating in the opinion polls. But he is confident his party's profile will be boosted when the leaders' debates are televised.

Dunne has gathered a "kitchen Cabinet" around him including his chief of staff Rob Eaddy, deputy leader Judy Turner, party president Denise Krum and membership organiser Frank Owen.

Dunne positions himself as a "moderating force" between the two major parties. Like Winston Peters he has been a minister outside Cabinet this term - and instrumental in driving through corporate and personal tax cuts.

United Future is driving hard to scoop up some of NZ First's disaffected supporters who are seeking a new "third party" home after the Peters' meltdown.

Dunne will again be promoting a strong tax-cutting agenda along with a push for referendums on the Maori seats and MMP. But he concedes it will be his performance on the night of the TV debates that will make or break his party's future.

NZ First is so enmeshed in the four donations inquiries that it has taken its eye off the ball while its opponents move to gobble up its support base.

Even Clark is now campaigning in front of Grey Power - Peters' long-time fiefdom - while the MP strives to clear his reputation.

NZ First's fund-raising efforts are under pressure. Other personnel have had to step in and put a big effort behind the scenes, scoring the Rimutaka seat for MP Ron Mark as a bulwark against a total annihilation at the election. If Mark gets in - and Peters manages to drive up the party vote during the campaign - then NZ First will be a player next time.

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia expects Peters will still be a player after the election.

"He will always have the ability to rebuild and he will be there."

Turia laughs at suggestions she might be the "queen or king maker" if the Maori Party finds itself a key player in post-election discussions on the make-up of the next Government "What we do know is the Governor General won't be ringing up to us."

At the 2005 election, the Maori Party won four of the seven Maori seats. If it can scoop more seats this time it will have a better opportunity to "have a say. One doesn't need to be at the Cabinet table to do that, she says, "The great thing about MMP is you are able to develop different ways of working with Government and not necessarily working in Government."

Maori MP Hone Harawira is the party's campaign manager and also in charge of fund-raising.

Attention is now focused on winning the seven Maori seats, and on the morning after the election the party will begin to talk about its best way forward.

"We want an equal partnership. This isn't about numbers."

Turia is widely credited as "the boss" but the party is also reliant on "wise heads" from its National Council including president Whatarangi Winiata.

It is by no means certain the Maori Party will bed down with Labour. She notes Maori want to move away from dependence and might give their party vote elsewhere. "Our people have to consider where they want the most power to lie and I'm sure it won't be with the Labour Party."

Greens co-leader Russel Norman has taken the spotlight away from long-time leader Jeanette Fitzsimons since he entered Parliament on July 1. But Fitzsimons is widely seen as the real boss as she drives focus on climate change, peak oil, food, water and transport.

The Greens have never (quite) got into bed with Labour yet. But with NZ First looking an unlikely bride this time, Clark has been more conciliatory.

Not so conciliatory is Act NZ, which has brought Sir Roger Douglas back into the frame to drive up support. Rodney Hide as leader still nominally calls the shots, but Douglas provides the policy ballast.