Whatever spin National tries to put on last night's 3News-Reid Research byelection poll in the seat of Northland, the result will have sent shockwaves through the ranks of the governing party.

Taking such an early lead over his National rival in the campaign will give Winston Peters' bandwagon even more momentum.

Peters' support registered at 35 per cent in the poll, against 30 per cent for National's candidate Mark Osborne. It would be unwise to put too much stock in the exactitude of those numbers. As a minimum, however, the poll answers a crucial question: does the New Zealand First leader have any chance of winning the seat. That he clearly has a chance should see more voters clambering aboard, far less fearful of casting a wasted vote.

The poll will leave National's tacticians more than perplexed. Nationwide, National is still polling at the levels which secured victory in last September's general election . Yet, it is seemingly in serious trouble in one of its supposedly safe seats.


If there is a comparison to be made, it is with Labour's defeat in the 1985 Timaru byelection which was held some 10 months after the election of a Labour Government which became hugely popular, especially in metropolitan areas.

Initially, however, the sweeping economic reforms implemented by Sir Roger Douglas saw the removal of the cushion of agricultural subsidies and hit rural New Zealand very hard. Timaru went National.

Peters likewise may well be pushing a similar button in rural New Zealand by focusing on the notion - real or imagined - that Northland has been taken for granted for too long by National, that the electorate is missing out on the economic recovery and is instead suffering from severe Government neglect.

Peters' message is that Northland voters have been granted a unique and unexpected opportunity to make themselves heard by the Beehive and - knowing the modus operandi of John Key - able to extract some promises and concessions.

Peters is certainly being greeted locally like the return of the Prodigal Son. His means of transport - a large, specially-painted bus - doubles as a huge mobile New Zealand First billboard and as a backdrop for the street meetings beloved by a politician who believes in campaigning the old way by making hard-hitting speeches to whatever throng he can muster, rather than relying on photo-opportunities to sell his message.

But one poll does not make a trend. Moreover, polling specific electorates can go horribly wrong.

Nevertheless, all eyes will be glued to TVNZ's Q&A on Sunday morning which will add to the drama by revealing the result of a One News-Colmar Brunton poll of the electorate.

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