Election 2017

Bill’s next big test - 15 years on

Prime Minister Bill English goes up against Labour's Jacinda Ardern in the first televised leaders' debate tonight - 15 years after his first attempt against Helen Clark.

The 2002 first leaders' debate featured not just English and Clark but Jim Anderton, Peter Dunne, Winston Peters, Richard Prebble and Laila Harre.

In this video, English is an impossibly young looking (40-year-old) National Party leader and Dunne is sans bow tie.

It was the year of The Worm, a live onscreen tracking of an audience's reaction to what the leaders said. Dunne benefited greatly from that worm and that debate, taking his United Future party to 7 percent of the vote and eight seats in Parliament. Before the debate, a Herald poll had United Future at 1.1 percent.

English and Clark's performances paled into insignificance in comparison with The Worm - which also rewarded New Zealand First's Winston Peters when he complained about crime, Treaty issues and... immigration.

English's National Party crashed to its worst election result in 2002, attracting just 20.9 percent of the party vote. Labour won 41 percent with United Future, Act and New Zealand First all benefiting from National's collapse.

Prime Minister Bill English meets shoppers in the LynnMall Shopping Centre during a walkabout today. Photo: Getty Images

Today, English cut a relaxed figure as he did a campaign walkabout in LynnMall in New Lynn, Auckland and then greeting shoppers at lunchtime in Kumeu, northwest of the city. He told the media earlier his best practice for the debate was going out and talking to voters and explaining National's plans. Several party figures had rehearsed in the role of Ardern, but Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye, who was with English at the time, and has twice beaten Ardern in electorate fights, was not one of them, he said.

Ardern told media at a campaign event at Manukau Institute of Technology that she wasn't using MPs as Bill English stand-ins during preparation. "I lean on a range of people, actually."

She thought both leaders would put be putting in plenty of late preparation. "Partly because we carry the aspirations of our team with us."

The debate tonight, on TVNZ 1 and moderated by Seven Sharp co-host Mike Hosking, begins at 7pm.

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