Key perfects image of everyman

Babies? Puppies? John Key has kissed them. It must be an election year. But there is a reason why Key appears to have kissed more babies on the campaign trail so far than all his opponents put together.

He seems to carry it off without coming across as another tacky politician.

He even managed to carry off a women's magazine cover clutching a couple of guide dog puppies with wife Bronagh.

The puppies were on loan from their real homes for the photo shoot, in which John and Bronagh are paired in soft pastel shades of blue and pink.

It is a scene straight out of a political satire - one of those episodes where the spin doctors dream up stunts to boost their candidates' appeal to women voters.

And on any other politician, that is probably how it would come across.

The puppy link is that the Keys sponsor four guide dog puppies and donated $20,000 to the Royal Foundation for the Blind on the day the women's mag turned up.

That the magazine cover manages to convey the impression that the Keys sponsored the puppies on behalf of baby Prince George probably didn't evoke any protests from his office, even though that was blatantly not the case.

Key's opponents would grumble that the story and accompanying photos are a cynical election-year attempt to evoke an emotional response. They are undoubtedly right.

Of course, that applies to politicians of every stripe in an election year.

There is no other valid reason for them to go around kissing babies in shopping malls after all.

But, as one Nat lectured in response to sniffs about the latest magazine cover, "what you people don't get is that's 80,000 votes, right there". It may have been only half in jest.

Key is not the first politician to court the women's mags, of course.

His predecessor, Helen Clark, also saw them as an important outlet. And others would climb over their grandmothers for a cover shot. But Key makes it look like a much more natural fit.

It's not just the women's mags that Key is careful to feed.

He keeps in touch with gossip columnists, who oblige with quirky yarns about domestic life at the Key household; does many regular slots on radio, even on shows most people would never have heard of, such as the Farming Show (of "gay red shirt" fame); and he recently admitted phoning bloggers like Cameron Slater as well to keep them in the loop.

That his busiest media day - television, followed by at least three radio interviews in a row - falls on a day in which his diary is already full with Cabinet meetings is testament to how much importance he places on these appearances to help cultivate the "everyman" image.

The extraordinary thing is that he doesn't yet seem to be suffering from overexposure - even if the half-hour Campbell Live programme at home with "John and Bronagh" brought home the fact that there is really not much left that we don't know about Key.

The anecdote about John telling Bronagh he would be prime minister one day is so familiar now, it's like one of those stories Granddad repeats around the Christmas table every year.

Clark's minders occasionally used to try to pull her back from the public eye when they felt the public were getting heartily sick of seeing her on the telly each night. Key's enduring popularity suggests he has worn in more comfortably with the voters, like an old pair of slippers.

But National may be at risk of becoming too complacent that Key has stumbled on the magic formula with voters.

Clark's first years in office were also marked by extraordinary popularity - like Key, Clark earned the nickname Teflon because nothing stuck to her during her first term in office.

Her popularity was, in fact, not too far adrift of Key's for much of Labour's first six years and, like Key, she topped 50 per cent at various points in the cycle.

In fact, her personal support held up better than Labour's for some time, a feat she never lost sight of.

The difference may be that the Clark traits which most irked voters - her control-freakery and her dourness - got more pronounced over time.

Key has clearly learnt that lesson.

In the last couple of years he has toned down the jokes and become more serious, a sign that he saw that as his greatest potential weakness.

It will be tempting on the campaign trial later this year to compare Key's pulling power in public with his opponents.

But incumbency is always a huge advantage.

Back in 2008 I recall following Key around at Fieldays and most people passed him without blinking - even though National was on track to win resoundingly at the ballot box a few months later.

Clark's entourage, in contrast, would take forever to make its way around a shopping mall as she was stopped by people wanting to shake her hand or take her picture.

That was why her defeat came as such a humiliating and crushing blow to Clark - she was never able to equate the response she received while out and about to the polls showing the electorate had well and truly fallen out of love with her and her government.

It goes to show that politicians are as susceptible to self-deception as anyone, even with the benefit of all the polls and focus groups they throw money at.

Key has a more calculated approach to his personal popularity which suggests he is less likely to lose sight of the fact that, like any currency, it could easily lose value over time.

He is probably ahead of most of his colleagues on that score. National has been up and Labour down for so long they are at risk of believing it is the natural state of affairs.

Given the state of the polls, that may be a reasonable assumption for this election at least. But nothing lasts forever.

Clark genuinely believed she had the personal following to carry Labour through to a fourth term even when all the odds seemed stacked against her.

Key's response when asked the question on Campbell Live about the prospect of leading National into a fourth term after this election suggests he may be more grounded when the time comes.

His answer was an equivocal "probably". In politician speak that is as much "no", as "yes".

Fairfax Media