John Key and David Cunliffe go head-to-head tonight for the first time on the campaign trail - and a new poll suggests both will be desperate to regain their footing with a strong performance.
The only parties to have emerged unscathed from a chaotic, turbulent start to the election campaign appear to be those who have stayed out of the fray, according to the 3 News-Reid Research poll.
National is down 2.5 points to 45 per cent, while Labour is also down, to 26.4 per cent.
NZ First leader Winston Peters is up, and back in his preferred position of kingmaker on 6.3 per cent, while the Conservatives are a whisker away from passing the 5 per cent threshold for seats in Parliament, at 4.6 per cent.
Support for both minor parties could swing wildly between now and the election, however, because they are polling at a level where small changes could make a big difference to their result.
But the poll thrusts National out of its comfort zone, with party strategists acknowledging that once its support slips below 46 per cent it could lose the election.
Key will be hoping to turn that around with a strong performance on tonight's televised TVNZ leaders' debate. Cunliffe, meanwhile, needs to give a strong performance to make up for a lacklustre campaign so far.
Key had a horror start to the campaign, after a book alleged National Party dirty politics, drawing on thousands of emails hacked from Right-wing blogger Cameron Slater.
But Labour also appears to have suffered, suggesting voters are punishing both parties for the focus on dirty politics and personalities.
Labour may also be suffering from being invisible at the start of the campaign, due to all the focus on Key.
Key said yesterday he hoped the poll would galvanise his supporters: "If there's any National supporter that was thinking about the fact they might be able to stay home on election day and leave it up to everybody else, maybe this poll will give them a wake-up call."
The campaign has returned to an even keel since the weekend, when National attempted to draw a line under the dirty politics saga with a rally in front of 2500 cheering supporters.
But questions about National's links to Slater continue, including his relationship with Justice Minister Judith Collins, who fed him information.
The 3 News poll shows voters overwhelmingly believe Collins should go, but Key continued to stand by her yesterday.
The next head-to-head contest between the two leaders is Tuesday, when Key and Cunliffe square off for the Christchurch Press leaders' debate.
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