Talk of a coup in National is set to heat up after a weekend poll put John Key ahead of Don Brash as National supporters' preferred party leader.
The TV3 TNS poll found that 42 per cent of National Party supporters thought finance spokesman John Key best suited to lead the party into the 2008 election, while 38 per cent backed Dr Brash, the present leader.
National refuses to comment on polls but Dr Brash told the Listener magazine that while there had been some "head-counting" over leadership support he had no plans to step down.
The Herald reported two weeks ago that Mr Key's supporters had taken soundings over a leadership challenge at the end of September, shortly after revelations of Dr Brash's affair.
Some colleagues were expecting a full bid before Christmas or early next year.
Other reports have speculated that Mr Key already has the numbers but wants to avoid a bloody contest and that Dr Brash might step aside.
The weekend poll put Labour on 42 per cent support (down 1), National steady on 40 per cent, the Greens steady on 7, the Maori Party up 0.6 points to 3.4; New Zealand First down 0.8 to 2.4; United Future up 0.7 to 1.9 and Act up 1 to 1.5.
Dr Brash said neither Mr Key nor his supporters had asked him to step aside. He believed recent speculation was sparked by revelations of his affair.
"I think a number of people in the caucus thought, 'My gosh, Don might very well decide to throw in the towel' and at that point the question is, 'Am I ready to succeed him?"'
That prompted a "bit of head counting that went on about six weeks back but I don't sense any mood for a change now".
Dr Brash also told the Listener he almost won the election for National despite the good position the Government had with a buoyant economy and low unemployment.
"That gives the lie to the idea that Don Brash can't appeal to ordinary New Zealanders. It was the best result for the National Party in terms of share of the total vote since 1990."
Dr Brash said it was true National lacked the support of women but he did not think it was his fault.
"The reality is that the National Party hasn't polled well among women since 1990. There's been a significant gender bias.
"We have not won the majority of women's votes for some time. I take some reassurance from that because it suggests it's not something particularly to do with me."
However, he agreed allegations of his extramarital affair were unhelpful.
"I accept that, though I was a little reassured by the polls suggesting that most people felt people's private lives were private and shouldn't be brought into the public domain."
Labour is goading Dr Brash over his affair with its latest billboard, which runs dwindling sized-pictures of Dr Brash and reads: "Comb-over, Take-over, Leg-over, Push-over, All-over."
That billboard was in response to a National anti-Helen Clark billboard at airports which reads: "Paintergate, Corngate, Doonegate, Speedgate, Pledgegate, Departure gate."
National Party commentators are split on Dr Brash's leadership.
Former National finance minister Ruth Richardson questioned whether it was "the usual suspects" raising coup talk and said there was no reason to roll Dr Brash.
However, National Party activist and commentator Matthew Hooton said it was time for him to go.
"John Key might lose to Helen Clark in 2008, and Bill English would probably lose to Helen Clark in 2008, but Don Brash will definitely lose to Helen Clark in 2008."
In the TV3 poll for preferred prime minister, Helen Clark slipped from 38 per cent support to 35 per cent, and Dr Brash from 17 per cent to 15 per cent.
- NZPA AND STAFF REPORTER