Key Points:

Paula Oliver examines National's claims to the Treasury benches

IN A NUTSHELL

National came close to pulling off an unlikely victory in 2005 under Don Brash but ended two percentage points short of Labour in the party vote. Helen Clark went on to form a Government.

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That election was bittersweet for National because while it failed to win, its 39.1 per cent vote was by far its best result under MMP.

And it signalled a sharp turnaround in fortunes compared with 2002 when Bill English led the party to its worst-ever result of just 20.9 per cent.

Still, National has governed only once under MMP and that was in the first election under the proportional representation system in 1996.

The party's deal with New Zealand First eventually collapsed and National has yet to prove it can successfully govern with an MMP partner.

National has gone into every election under MMP with a different leader and this time it is John Key trying to end Helen Clark's three-term stretch as Prime Minister.

Since Brash voluntarily exited, Key has moved to chisel the hard edges off some policies his predecessor promoted and taken the party back toward the centre of the political spectrum.

National in 2008 has good prospects and has regularly been polling above 50 per cent support for more than a year.

It is likely to enjoy strong backing from its traditional rural constituency and will try to eat into Labour's urban, middle income support.

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ASSESSMENT

National has been a solid Opposition but it must be noted that in this term many of Labour's wounds have been self-inflicted.

Assets and liabilities

In many ways National's leader is its biggest asset.

Key's freshness is a stark contrast to the third-term leadership of Helen Clark. He has a naturally upbeat manner and strong interpersonal skills.

His life story, featuring the famous climb from state house to multimillionaire, also resonates with some voters.

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National as an organisation has a strong party machine and its campaign is boosted by having Steven Joyce back on the team.

Key's deputy, English, is a vital cog because he brings the experience, policy and institutional knowledge that his still relatively new leader lacks.

On the liability side of the ledger, National still has too many faces from the 1990s on its front bench. There is a lack of depth of talent, with only a few of the large 2005 intake actually stepping up and shining during the term.

The party needs more women in higher positions. Just two women - Judith Collins and Anne Tolley - sit on its front bench and the departure of the highly marketable Katherine Rich has been a blow.

Key's relative inexperience against veteran campaigner Clark is potentially a liability on the campaign trail, while his level of policy knowledge against her encyclopedic brain must be a minus.

Global economic and financial turmoil makes life difficult for National but it will try to use this to its advantage by selling Key and English as better economic managers.

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Achievements and failures

National has made as much political mileage as it could out of Labour's mistakes during the term and ran particularly strong campaigns against the Electoral Finance Act, Labour's pledge card, politicisation of the state sector, growth in the number of bureaucrats, and Taito Phillip Field.

The party continued its tax cut push and effectively won that argument when Labour introduced $10.6 billion of tax cuts.

National navigated through a potentially ugly leadership change without fuss.

Key's compromise move on the so-called anti-smacking legislation has proven a positive despite doubters even within his own caucus.

National has built better relations with other parties, in particular the Maori Party, which has been a considerable achievement following the angst around Brash's Orewa speech.

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Key's presentation - his handling of media questions, speech delivery, and articulation - has improved and so has his knowledge of policy areas.

While National has become a more disciplined unit during the term, it still has lapses.

The release of National's own policies this year by Labour further emphasised the feeling that the party hasn't yet killed off the feeling it can be sloppy and may not be ready for government.

Policies to watch for

National has further policy announcements to come in the high-profile battle grounds of law and order and education. Together with the economy, these are the three areas National is targeting in the campaign.

The party's intention to weaken KiwiSaver will be a controversial aspect of its campaign while its tax cuts are certainly not the big plus they were in 2005 because Labour's are of similar size.

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The broad theme of reining in the bureaucracy and improving the quality of government spending flows through National's plans for several policy areas.

What they need to do in the campaign

Key and English must look like credible alternative managers of the economy. As the world experiences a financial meltdown of historic proportions voters will become wary of options that look too risky.

Key has to hold his own versus Clark in the head-to-head debates and be familiar with the detail of all of National's policies, and ready to discuss them at any time.

National must defend its KiwiSaver policy well because it is the part of the party's economic plan that could most disturb voters. And it will undoubtedly be at the centre of Labour attacks. For a party so far ahead in the polls, avoiding mistakes is a must - and not taking victory for granted.

PERFORMANCE RATING: 7/10

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