The apparent battle to the electoral death between the two minor socially conservative parties, New Zealand First and the Conservatives, could be one of the more defining and important aspects of the coming election.

The parties have a lot in common - as well as some key differences - and these were plain to see during the weekend when they both held their annual conferences. Lots of fascinating details came out of those conferences: populist policies and some extremism, maneuvering over electorate deals, and the possibility of a head-to-head electoral contest between Colin Craig and Winston Peters in East Coast Bays. But perhaps the biggest question to come out of the weekend is can both parties survive this election?

There are some major similarities between New Zealand First and the Conservative Party. This is making for some serious friction between the two, over major strategic battles - as explained by Tim Watkin in his blog post, Mate, has Winston put the Conservatives in check?

And the policy similarities even have Peters accusing Craig of plagiarism. For a comprehensive discussion of the policy similarities and differences between the two parties, see Isaac Davison's Conservatives butt heads with NZ First over lookalike policies.

The battle between the two socially conservative parties could be viewed as the 'old versus new'. That's a point made by John Armstrong in his column about New Zealand First's 21st anniversary celebrations, in which he says, 'Unfortunately for Peters, the sight of the splendid birthday cake only underlined a brutal truth: Peters is approaching the twilight of his political career while Craig's has barely begun' - see: No birthday best wishes for Peters.

But how similar are the parties really? Colin James points out a key difference: 'Some think Colin Craig might help Peters into retirement by purloining some of his populist support. But Craig is not a populist in Peters' blokeish-centrist way. He pitches a conservative-Christian line on social and moral issues, in effect stretching a conservative strand within National so far beyond the boundaries of National's broad church that large numbers in that party won't have a bar of him' - see: The crowded field of would-be kingmakers.

What does the Conservative Party stand for?

The Conservatives' main campaign slogan is 'Stand for something'. And it's illustrating this sentiment with a huge policy-based advertising blitz at the moment. You can see images of its newspaper advertising, letterbox flyers, and some cartoons published about the party in my blog post, Images of Colin Craig's Conservative Party.

In terms of the newspaper ads, Barry Soper has some interesting analysis, pointing out that 'hypnotic eyes stare at you from the newspaper. There's nothing frivolous about this serious face - it has a 'don't mess with me' message' - see: Nothing Conservative about Colin's ads. Soper admits some of the ads show that Craig has 'got a sense of humour though, taking the proverbial out of what is a fairly common opinion of him, that he's weird and wacky'.

John Armstrong also highlights that the weekend's conference was an indication that Colin Craig is trying to appear more moderate: 'The conference was something of milestone for Craig's party. There was no wackiness of the moon-landings-did-not-happen kind. Craig instead stayed very much on message during the two (yes two) lengthy speeches he delivered on Saturday, along with a rapid-fire question and answer session during which he was only lost for a reply once. And then only for a second or two' - see: No birthday best wishes for Peters.

But are the Conservatives becoming too bland for their own good? By moderating the party's more radical policies as well as downplaying Craig's own more eccentric personal views, the party is now receiving less publicity. As Andrea Vance says, 'Craig is struggling for airtime. His low polling means the media are only interested when he's expounding barmy theories' - see: Poll: Support for minor parties drops.

Rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton was the guest speaker at the Conservatives' conference, and he advised the party to be bolder rather than bland - as reported by Isaac Davison in Rankin hits back at Conservative Party critics.

The report on Hooton's remarks is worth quoting at length: 'Hooton also gave Conservatives advice on what values to emphasise during their campaign, saying they could afford to be extreme and offend 95 per cent of the population because they only needed 5 per cent of the vote. He received the loudest cheer of the night when he told Conservative to emphasise its evangelical Christian side, saying that no other party targeted the religious vote. "I'd put God a bit more into focus. I don't think you should be ashamed of speaking for Christian governance." Mr Hooton told party members to "go big on smacking". Mr Craig previously funded a march against anti-smacking legislation and helped organise a referendum on the issue. The party has a hard-line law and order policy, and Mr Hooton went as far as to suggest it should re-ignite the debate on the death penalty in New Zealand. "You're not telling me there's not 1 in 20 New Zealanders who wouldn't vote on that issue," he said'.

The Conservatives are not only pushing a policy of 'binding referendums' hard, but also emphasising that this is a bottom-line National must accept before the Conservatives could support a National government.

For the best critique of the populist policy, see Andrew Geddis' Colin Craig is asking for the impossible. He outlines why the policy is constitutionally difficult.

And for a possible insight into why the Conservatives are standing so strong on the referendum issue, see the previous article by Adam Bennett: Millionaires give Craig $675,000.

What does New Zealand First stand for?

New Zealand First came out with some relatively bold policies in the weekend in the area of social conservatism and the economy. In terms of tax, Peters is promising a tax-cut of about $3 billion from taking GST off 'healthy food' and off residential rates - see Adam Bennett's Tax dodgers, GST on food top NZ First hit list. As Bennett says, this is a 'supercharged' version of Labour's 2011 tax-cut, which 'would have cost $250 million a year'.

New Zealand First would also apply a capital gains tax on foreign investment only, which had the Taxpayers' Union immediately pointing out that this could breach New Zealand's international trade agreements. Jordan Williams is quoted as saying 'Peters is either forgetful or intends on tearing up the agreement and jeopardising the $20 billion in annual trade we now enjoy with China' - see Hamish Rutherford's Peters goes easy on food, tough on drink.

Social issues were also targeted, with a promised clampdown on drunk and disorderly behaviour, and also a focus on immigrants - see Dene Mackenzie's Peters targeting immigration. Mackenzie points out that 'Peters indicated he was more likely to move to the left of the political spectrum if he was needed as a coalition partner after the election'.

Adam Bennett outlines more 'hardline law and order' policies in NZ First's shoot to kill law. Interestingly, this report includes the negative evaluation on the 'shoot to kill' policy from "Northland farmer Paul McIntyre [who] was tried and eventually acquitted of charges stemming from his 2002 shooting of one of three men trying to steal his farm bike'.


Electorate deals: who will get them?

For a comprehensive look into the electoral deals that the National Party are currently considering, see Lucy Warhurst 12-minute item for The Nation: Electorate seats in play.

It seems that there is a real spanner in the works for Colin Craig's hope that he will be given an easy run in the East Coast Bays electorate. Peters has declared that he might run against Craig, highlighting any electoral deal between National and the Conservatives. As Andrea Vance says, Peters would be 'seizing on public distaste for electorate deals. By threatening to stand in East Coast Bays he also pulled the rug from under both Key and Craig. An election naif, Craig would relish the publicity of a battle with the old war horse. However, the much savvier Key will baulk at giving Peters the oxygen. Particularly when there is no guarantee residents of ECB will choose to hold their noses and vote for Craig' - see: Poll: Support for minor parties drops.

Matthew Hooton has shed more light on what it might take for National to throw the East Coast Bays seat to Colin Craig - see Stacey Kirk's PM won't 'knife' McCully for less than three per cent. Citing internal National Party research, Hooton believes that John Key 'would not "knife" McCully for anything less than a three per cent party vote from the Conservatives. "I'm told National has done some research and polling on this matter, and it reckons it would lose a couple of per cent of the party vote if Key pulled McCully and endorsed Craig."' See also, Isaac Davison's Rankin hits back at Conservative Party critics.

It is worth pointing out that traders on iPredict are currently forecasting the Conservatives to win 3.6%.

Can New Zealand First survive?

There's plenty of speculation about whether New Zealand First can make the 5% threshold in September. According to traders on iPredict, the likely party vote for NZ First is currently forecast at 5.3%. But blogger Martyn Bradbury puts forward 5 reasons why NZ First won't get over 5% and how Colin Craig is now a contender for Key's help in East Coast Bays.

Barry Soper thinks otherwise, and outlines the staying power of Peters, as well as the need not to take his pronouncements too much at face value - see:
Peters The Survivor.

A column today by Dave Armstrong outlines the history of the party, and declares, NZ First an MMP survivor. Armstrong points out the 'almost pathological hatred of NZ First and its leader' by commentators, and declares its survival so far 'no mean feat'. But more interesting is his summary of the party's current parliamentary term: 'Brendan Horan's departure, Richard Prosser's "Wogistan" comments and other caucus distractions haven't helped. There has been little policy talk, apart from occasional complaints about Whanau Ora. Peters has been eloquent about National's "crony capitalism", yet his "smoking gun" on Judith Collins fired blanks'.

Similarly, Andrea Vance says 'The party is a one-trick pony and Peters has wilted this term. Like Craig, he is struggling for attention in a crowded political scene - and a new generation of parliamentary reporters are no longer in thrall to his late-night gossip sessions or half-truth rhetoric' - see: Poll: Support for minor parties drops.

John Armstrong believes that Peters is winning in the battle with the Conservatives: 'Despite Craig's confidence, Peters still has the upper hand in this tussle. He can syphon votes off Labour as well as National - something that Craig's party, still struggling to shrug off the "Christian" tag, will find difficulty in doing. Craig still has yet to get real "cut-through" in connecting with the provincial cities and towns where his party's emphasis on such traditional core "Kiwi values" such as hard work and family ought to strike a chord' - see: No birthday best wishes for Peters.

For a very interesting forecast of some possible election-night outcomes for the Peters party, see Colin James' The crowded field of would-be kingmakers. This is what he says: 'Journalists' ideal result for New Zealand First on September 20 is 5.01 per cent in the party vote on the night, with the balance of power, and 4.98 per cent in the final count two weeks later. If New Zealand First then requested a judicial recount, election uncertainty would make news well into October. The best New Zealand First result for National would be 4.8 per cent, too low for a recount and swelling the wasted vote to 6-6.5 per cent, cutting the vote share needed for a majority to about 45.5 per cent plus David Seymour and Peter Dunne. The best result for Winston Peters would be upwards of 5.5 per cent and bargaining power between two sides if John Key's charm falls short of 47-48 per cent. New Zealand First has averaged 4.6 per cent in polls this year (4.2 per cent recently), so another term is likely, especially if Labour can't climb out of its pit'.

Of course, Peters himself is still being very careful not to give away any details of which party he might help into government after the election - see Hamish Rutherford's Peters keeps mum on who he'd back. And the latest polling shows that the public are fairly evenly divided about who they think he will go with.

Finally, for a humourous response to Colin Craig's binding referendum policy, see Scott Yorke's A better direct democracy idea.