The worm turns for Goff in leaders' debate

TRACY WATKINS AND VERNON SMALL
Last updated 05:00 22/11/2011
Phil Goff
TV3
PHIL GOFF: "Any political leader... that undermines political stability...will incur the wrath of the electorate. I trust [Winston] to do the responsible thing.''
John Key
TV3
JOHN KEY: "If Winston Peters is in your government, he can pull the house of cards down any time he wants. Get ready for a new election.''

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Labour leader Phil Goff has had a boost in the final days of the campaign after being judged the winner by TV3's "worm".

The debate last night pitting Goff against Prime Minister John Key for the third time in this campaign came as National tries to stoke up fears of NZ First holding the balance of power.

Goff last night refused to shut the door on a deal with Winston Peters despite the New Zealand First leader's vow not to give his support to either major party and instead vote issue by issue.

But most eyes were on how the leaders performed with the return of "the worm" - which tracked the reactions of a panel of undecided voters and viewers at home through smartphone devices.

Goff was the clear winner with the worm, with the panel liking what he said on issues including the cost of living, the gap between the rich and poor and asset sales.

Labour will claim that as a victory and a big morale boost in the final days of the campaign - in 2002, the worm favoured UnitedFuture leader Peter Dunne and delivered him seven new MPs.

During parts of the debate, the worm dived almost as soon as Key had started speaking.

Key said after the debate the "worm" audience was only "one group of people".

"There's obviously an awful lot of people who watched it without access to it."

But National will be worried if the worm becomes a bigger story than the debate itself, with party strategists yesterday ascribing its preference for Goff to undecided voters being uncertain about which of the left wing parties they would vote for rather than being genuinely floating voters.

Claims had already surfaced last night from right wing bloggers that Labour activists were in the studio audience.

Goff clearly enjoyed the reception he got from the worm, and talked up his victory further by claiming that National supporters would have tried to skew the results.

"I suspect there will be a lot of young Nats out there with the latest cellphones that will be spending a lot of money voting at the moment."

Heading into last night's debate, Key warned that the country could be forced back to the polls within weeks after  Peters said he would vote issue by issue from the Opposition benches.

"If Winston Peters is in your government, he can pull the house of cards down any time he wants," Key said last night.

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But Goff said he trusted Peters "to do the responsible thing for New Zealand" and provide stable government.

He would not rule Mr Peters out of a Labour-led coalition.

Goff hit back at Key by accusing him of being "donkey deep" in trying to resurrect the ACT party through his endorsement of John Banks in Epsom.

Key reiterated that he was "totally relaxed" about National supporters voting for Banks - but he sent an ominous warning to ACT by acknowledging that his support may not worked yet.

Successive polls have shown National's candidate Paul Goldsmith ahead of Banks.

Goff started strongly in the debate though Key recovered in the second half. There was no knock-out punch by either leader as there was in the Christchurch Press debate, when Key floored Goff by exposing his uncertainty over policy costings.

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