Key Points:

Winston Peters' political career appeared over last night, with the veteran suffering a humiliating defeat in Tauranga and New Zealand First looking unlikely to get the 5 per cent of the party vote needed to return to Parliament.

Peters' electorate campaign manager Carole Gordon said it would be sad not to have Winston back in the seat he lost to Bob "the Builder" Clarkson in 2002.

"There's a lot of recognition for what he's done in Tauranga," she said. "New Zealand First supporters are very loyal, loyal to principles of the party. It's not just a Winston cult."

In the end, it was as if Peters became tangled in his own conspiratorial web.

The last paid party political broadcast on Friday night said it all.

Winston Peters, alone in the lights. The Maori boy "born and raised in a tent", was perched in what looked like the Queen Mother's living room, china teapot and doilies at the ready, as he spent at least half of his last crucial three-and-a-half minutes of official propaganda time ranting about the bullies and bozos in the media.

"It's about you," he said, smiling down the camera and offering a Winston Churchill-style two-fingered "V". But the subtext was pure paranoia: They're all out to get me.

He is a chameleon, a paradox, a mercurial and obsessive survivor.

The veteran of 27 years in Parliament, much of which he has spent exposing, or starring in, some form of dramatic scandal.

He has been promoted, demoted and very nearly worshipped as MP, minister and party leader.

He's quit governments, formed governments, and almost broken governments.

But always he's lived to tell the tale (usually deep into the next morning over several whiskeys and two packets of cigarettes).

Even now it's almost scary to suggest he won't somehow pull through: that some horrendous mistake hasn't been made at polling HQ late last night. As the Herald's Colin James said: "One never says die of Winston. Remember him walking up to the podium to concede Tauranga in 1999, only to hear as he walked that he had won by a sliver?"

Who else could have deflected, with a mere wink, accusations of hypocrisy last election, after initially slamming the ungodly pursuit of the "baubles of office", only to emerge with the Minister-ship of Foreign Affairs dripping off him like some giant, jangly, medallion?

But the former teacher and lawyer and rugby winger is also, arguably, brilliant. And, to the irritation of his opponents, he has an uncanny propensity to be right. Even if only technically.

Helen Clark must have known this when she refused, time and again this year, to cut him loose or censure him over the Owen Glenn and Spencer Trust sagas.

Through select committee hearing and policy inquiry, she cringingly defended him only to watch him emerge out the end a tad stinky, but, as always, officially squeaky clean.

And when he wasn't right about Something the temptation was to let him be.

Peters' tangential, relentless, obfuscative and weird arguments would render any reporter or political opponent so exhausted and confused they would be diving for the nearest exit.

"Arguing with Winston," said ACT leader and sometime nemesis Rodney Hide, "is like trying to swim through an ocean of spaghetti".

Yet he's one of Parliament's charmers, which, along with his inimitable wit, is one of the qualities he'll be most missed for. After 28 years in Parliament he's almost the last of the old guard, who still negotiate over a tumbler, or not uncommonly, a bottle of whiskey.

A door-opener, hand-shaker and deal-sealer who is very much a man of the people.

But ultimately, they were the wrong kind of people to see his remarkable run last another term.

While he might still be able to excite the old folks with the nightmares about a flood of dirty immigrants pouring in and stealing jobs, what, ultimately, does that matter, when your constituency is literally dying off?

Peters' career was forged by railing against big business, talking tough on immigration and crime, promising big (and to be fair, often delivering) to old people, and making wild allegations of conspiracy theories.

Over the years Russian submarines have charted local waters, the Government has covered up a ferry running aground, and the IRD and SFO have been wound up in a criminal conspiracy. And there were dozens more.

Most of which were not proven. But true to form they weren't strictly (as strictly as Peters demands) disproven either.

"One of the joys of the conspiracy theory, is it can never be disproven to the satisfaction of the conspiracy theorist," says Victoria University political psychologist Marc Wilson.

These kept him going for a while but Peters suffered because he kept banging the same drum and those who liked the sound of it were a dying breed, Wilson adds.

"Winston has stuck to the tried and true, which is a strength and a weakness, because you need to evolve.

"If there's one mistake Winston has made, it's that he hasn't changed his message. It's stale."

Besides, youth don't do conspiracy theories. They worship the soundbite, and switch off during the heavy-on-adjectives town hall rant of which Peters has always been the doyen.

They talk on Bebo and watch YouTube - something National got, and Labour didn't quite, this election. NZ First, on the other hand, battled on with a clunky old website that hadn't been modernised in six years.

The lustre of Peters' personality and wit wasn't enough in the end. That's not to say he didn't try.

His magic was on full beam at Matapihi's Hungahungatoroa Sports Club in the run-up to the election, when he shunned a place on the stage with the politicians and propped himself among his people in the crowd. Peters spoke last, introduced by master of ceremonies Charlie Timutimu, who first met Peters and his three brothers in 1971 when they all played for the Auckland University rugby team.

Timutimu recalled asking Alan Peters why his brother was on the wing. "Alan replied: `Oh, because he talks too much'," at which the crowd heartedly chuckled.

They might have left the joke there, but then that familiar smirk spread across Winston's face. The last word was his to take. "I was on the wing," he said, laughing, "because I could run fast".