Earlier this week I was driving past a pile of campaign billboards that some hoon had mown down with a car. It was raining and watching the poor bugger trying to repair his candidate's signage brought back similar memories of campaigns I'd run.

The Mt Albert campaign is the first by-election since Robert Muldoon died in 1991 when I wasn't the campaign manager for a candidate or at least playing a senior role. Back-room managers have a hell of a job. Few come back for another by-election. I've done five, which must be a record. Someone asked if I missed running campaigns. I assured them I didn't. Working early morning until late without a day off for two months takes its toll.

The biggest stress is dreading your candidate making a boo-boo the media picks up. You'd spend hours briefing the candidate until they could recite their lines in their sleep. Contrary to what most people think, questions are pretty predictable.

David Shearer is a model candidate who had his ego in check and stuck to script. When he didn't know an answer he reverted to pleasant generalities that may not have pleased his questioner but would have reassured his handlers. That is, he didn't say anything stupid.

Phil Goff put his credibility on the line by pushing Shearer as Labour's nominee. Fortunately for Goff, Shearer didn't let him down.

National's campaign was an amateur affair from the start. Their senior party leaders' opinion was that the local favourite wasn't up to it and a new face was needed. I'm sure they were right but John Key and his advisers went for superficiality by appointing Melissa Lee rather than getting a safe pair of hands.

It's clear no senior National Party players know much about running by-elections. They didn't understand that a by-election candidate will come under intense pressure and scrutiny.

Lee has a good personal back story but in terms of political intuition she was a disaster. It's an easy convenience to blame Lee but let's put the responsibility where it should be. It was John Key's fault.

Key picked Lee. He made a political judgment call on who he believed could carry the party's fortunes nationally for a couple of months. The onus on him was to have a candidate with the experience and political nous to get through an intense day-to-day struggle without making a slip-up.

Lee was ill-served from the start. It's incredulous she wasn't briefed before her cabinet colleagues announced they were building a motorway through the Mt Albert electorate.

Clearly Lee knew nothing about it. Consequently her confusing statements were embarrassing and undermined her credibility before the campaign even began.

But Lee's dumb utterance afterwards about the motorway limiting the flow of South Aucklanders dropping in to rob the locals ensured the motorway debacle stayed in the public arena. If she'd just apologised, said it was a silly thing to say and passed it off as early election nerves people would have let it go.

The fact that she spent a couple of days defending her statements killed off any goodwill. When she finally was forced to apologise it was insincere and she came across as arrogant. Her campaign was over. The only question was how much she'd lose by.

But it should have been different. With Key's popularity, the National Party should have been able to be competitive in Mt Albert, at the very least.

The backing of a candidate who wasn't up to the task and the lack of competent support for Lee after she floundered makes Key's reputation as a competent manager questionable. The mishandling of the Richard Worth affair will reinforce this perception.

Russel Norman had a great personal campaign. He made a good strategic decision to run and he should be pleased with his performance. Until now, Norman has run the Greens' campaigns so he must have felt a bit odd having to let go of the backroom and focus on being the face of his campaign.

On Thursday, the main candidates attended a forum of 200 low-paid workers from the Unite Union at which we launched a petition to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Predictably, the first question was whether the candidates could live on the current minimum wage of $12.50 an hour. The mainly young working-class audience were incredulous when Lee claimed she only received $2 an hour when her MP's salary was divided by the hours she worked. She claimed her calculations had been done by the Parliamentary Services Office. It got worse from there. She was even offering recipes for the audience to save money.

Norman and Shearer were the favourites of the audience. When both signed a petition in support of raising the minimum wage, and Lee and Act's John Boscawen declined, it was a no-brainer where these workers' votes would go. Norman won the floor vote convincingly.

Here's my Mt Albert scorecard. National 2/10 - a complete train wreck. Act 5/10 - good effort but they're on the ropes. Labour 7/10 - David Shearer deserves his victory and will be a good MP. Greens 8/10 Norman was the best candidate.