Personable Key proves the immovable barrier
Labour tried it all. They understood their own weaknesses and they attacked National's soft spots.
They finally banished the leadership question, drew a line under the Darren Hughes affair and set out a plan to win the unwinnable election.
There were inevitable mistakes and the policy agenda was perhaps too cluttered.
But the advertisements were sharp, the overall approach coherent and there was no lack of trying from the leader, at least.
There was, however, the John Key question.
Widely trusted and generally liked, Key was the immovable object of this election campaign and National's result belongs almost entirely to him.
While Key's government has not exactly set the heather on fire with innovative or ingenious thinking, neither has it done enough that was offensive over its three years in charge.
If the economic pain had reached further there would have been more interest in an alternative plan. And if there were some Act Party-style outrages among National's ranks, Key might not have survived.
But there was simply not enough running against the prime minister to topple him.
Phil Goff had to go toe-to-toe with Key and somehow defeat him.
In an inevitably presidential- style campaign, Goff was starting from way behind.
He needed not just to pick up points here and there but to comprehensively better his rival. He needed to pull off the proverbial down-trou on Key. He got nowhere near it. The risks did not yield rewards.
Of course, Goff had to snipe at Key, abuse his record and chastise his management. He could hardly just put up Labour's plans without saying why they were needed.
The unerring sense throughout the campaign, though, was that the image of a nagging Goff was dominating the constructive one.
And while Key, on the other hand, had little of any great note to say, he still seemed to be popularly received as relaxed, likable and not so much a politician as a next-door neighbour.
Key's shtick was categorically not Helen Clark's cerebral authority, which had worked for Labour over nine years.
His was more that of the much- liked high school head boy. It beat Clark's style in 2008 and cleaned up Goff's in 2011.
It is not permanently immovable, however, and his next challenger should not think he or she can win only by out John Key- ing John Key.
It's just that we now know the Goff brand is not the one to do it.
- Sunday Star Times