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What could stop Ardern laughing all the way to the ballot box?

With just over four weeks to go in the campaign, Jacinda Ardern has plenty to be happy about. What, if anything, asks Ryan Bridge, could stop her smiling?

In a rare moment on the campaign trail this week, Jacinda Ardern broke character.

The Prime Minister’s communication style, particularly during television interviews, is usually precise, measured and considered; there’s little she will say or do that she hasn’t already bought herself enough time to think about first.

Plenty of “as we’ve been saying” “agains” and “keep in minds” afford her crucial seconds to ensure answers are on message and delivery isn’t over-the-top or at risk of sounding too defensive or, worse still, too flippant.

But, then, enter seagulls and bells at Dunedin’s Octagon and it all went out the door.

So genuine and spontaneous was her laughter at predicting the bells ding-donging during an appearance on Three’s The AM Show that you couldn’t help but laugh along with her.

And Ardern has plenty to be happy about.

With just over a month left on the clock, the polls are stacked in her favour and the possibility of Labour governing alone remains, despite the feat not yet being accomplished under MMP.

In the age of presidential-style campaigning, would we say Judith Collins is a major threat to Ardern? No, not in any direct way. She may have many great leadership qualities and a unique, at times risque, communication style of her own but you cannot, for love nor money, become more liked by an adoring public than Ardern in four weeks.

This is Ardern’s election to lose and Collins’ job is to make sure that if the wheels come off, she looks like a half-credible alternative.

Here are three obstacles standing in Ardern’s way for a return to Treasury benches.

GDP and government debt

Thursday’s June quarter contraction is predicted to be less than initially feared but voters will be wanting to know the extent to which the Government’s first lockdowns and other factors whacked growth. Economists’ exact predictions vary but it seems clear we’re headed for the largest quarterly drop in history. Ardern’s exposure to the bad news will be tempered by the fact many voters see it as payment for a worthwhile health response to Covid.

A bigger political problem is debt. If tax was Ardern’s Achilles heel in 2017, the size and timeframe for paying back the massive Covid borrowing has the potential to be her weakness in 2020. National clearly sees this as fertile ground, with its first TV campaign ad suggesting Collins and co. is the team capable of keeping a lid on it and aspiring to pay it back faster. This is no doubt an attempt to play into old stereotypes portraying Labour as the big spender and poor fiscal manager.

The Debates (rubs hands)

Do most people actually watch the entire debate and do many pay attention to who won on technicalities? Probably not. The opportunity here is to create ‘moments’. There are usually a few in every contest and they stand out. Parties will be eager to cut, clip and share them far and wide online. We all remember John Key’s “show me the money” line in 2011 and as a journo following Phil Goff that year I remember it stuck to him for the rest of the campaign. In Goff’s failure to publish full costings of his fiscal plans ahead of the debate Key saw an opportunity and seized on it. In just a few words he created a massive credibility issue for his opponent. These moments create a buzz, generate momentum and offer candidates a much needed boost when energy is running low. But they can’t always be planned.

Donald Trump whipped out a doozy, off-the-cuff, but on-brand retort in 2016 that’s still memorable today. In front of a town hall crowd, Hillary Clinton was painting him as a loose cannon not to be trusted. After a lengthy answer she finished: “... it’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country”. To which, without skipping a beat, Trump replied “because you’d be in jail”. It’s basically the political equivalent of a sick burn and we know Collins can deliver them well. We’ve seen glimpses of Ardern doing the same, most recently in the House comparing light rail delays to Collins’ leadership victory: “sometimes it takes a little longer to get what you want”.

The debates could prove costly if Ardern allows Collins any opportunity to pounce, though it looks like Grant Robertson has been warming up Ardern’s rebuttal lines already asking ‘what will the Nats axe’ to make up a so-called $80-billion dollar fiscal hole, whose very existence is still uncertain.

Missteps and forgotten missteps

Much more likely to narrow that gap in the polls is the perception of, or an actual misstep by Ardern or worse, one of her MPs. Todd Muller’s attack line about there being heavy-lifters in her Cabinet but the rest being no-hopers seemed to rattle the Government at a time when mistakes were being made. If another wave of Covid enters the country then voters may again be left asking how tight that border really is and who’s really being tested.

Ardern’s Prime Ministership has been a game of two halves; pre and post-Covid. Adoration for her performance in the second half has so far gazumped her failings in the first: Kiwibuild, transport and a dead-in-the-water capital gains tax to name but a few.

Any mistakes from here on, particularly at the border, could shake voters from their Covid-induced stupor and reignite the embers still burning beneath these since forgotten transformational failings.

Then Collins must emphasise supposed 'incompetence' repeatedly for four weeks.

There are other potential traps Ardern will need to avoid, but the size of her lead in the polls means they’re probably not enough to stop her from chortling on telly again anytime soon.

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