"Keep hope alive," Mike Moore used to tell his troops when he was Labour's leader during that party's dark days in the early 1990s.

Winston Peters is several Hallelujahs short of resembling some Bible-belt lay preacher. But not that far short. Anyone witnessing his speech to New Zealand First's annual convention at the weekend might have been excused for thinking they had been suddenly transported to America's Deep South, such was the revivalist fervour.

Hope was most definitely alive. NZ First refuses to obey its critics and die. It instead looks to be in rude good health despite three years in the political wilderness.

More than 300 delegates packed into the Top of the Park function room at Auckland's Alexandra Park raceway, united in achieving one goal - getting the party back into Parliament. Act struggled to get even a third of that number at its conference back in March.


As for those disconcerting polls, they were simply brushed aside as the tools of a biased and compliant media doing the National Party's dirty work. The polls were wrong. Peters would prove that on election night. Peters, however, plans to go one step further. He promised to mince up copies of the current polls showing NZ First in dire straits and feed them to journalists for breakfast the day after the election.

This election, however, NZ First intends mixing such bravado with some solid work on the ground. It has run badly conceived and poorly executed campaigns at past elections. Much of the weekend was devoted to ensuring it runs a good one this time.

The party organisation can only do so much. The rest is up to Peters. He can still turn on the fire and brimstone. Winning back the 70,000 or so extra votes he needs on top of current ratings to break through the 5 per cent threshold is a tough ask, however. And some uncomfortable questions linger in the background.

Questions like can NZ First sustain itself through another three years in the political wilderness if it fails to win any seats in November. Questions like how long will the party last when Peters finally hangs up his gloves. There is no discernible transition path to a new leadership were Peters to fall under the wheels of the proverbial bus.

Those questions may be pertinent after polling day. No one was asking them at the weekend.

The convention at least demolished the myth that the party is nothing but a dwindling collection of elderly fuddy-duddies yearning for a better past and utterly dependent on its charismatic leader maintaining some Faustian pact which guarantees he will look, if not ever youthful, then eternally middle-aged.

While the party's walking stick quota remains way above average, there were enough young faces to suggest some regeneration is under way.

Unlike National, whose conferences are now stage-managed to stifling proportions, NZ First is not afraid to let its delegates express their opinions from the conference floor no matter how embarrassing they might be.

Pre-election, the big question is whether Peters can come up with something to really make voters sit up and take notice. Yesterday's initiative was slashing the benefits of parents and others who refuse to co-operate with police inquiries into sexual abuse of children. Somehow Peters has to convince voters this is not just political posturing and that he has some chance of actually implementing it.

Some things don't change. You didn't have to scratch too deep beneath the surface of the conference to discover the preference of the party for conspiracy theories for Peters' demise in 2008 rather than the simpler explanation of his own fallibility.

As one delegate observed, however, it was time the party got over what happened in 2008.

To a large degree, NZ First has moved on. The problem for NZ First is that the public's largely unfavourable image of Peters and his party has not.