OPINION: After weeks of (cough) summer sun and barbecues, the political year was launched at such a hectic pace this week you could almost smell the burning rubber.
The number of Beehive staffers crowding the Koru lounge en route to the prime minister's annual state of the nation speech in Auckland on Thursday was confirmation, in case you needed it, that the election campaign is well under way.
National's determination to set the pace early was signalled by its decision to call Parliament back in January, a week or so before the traditional February start.
John Key's shock-jock tactic of delivering a state of the nation speech that even National's arch foes were forced to applaud, meanwhile, was a reminder of why he continues to rattle his opponents.
Ideology was left at the door with Key's plan to reward top teachers to keep them in the classroom.
Labour was stuck with a straw man argument that the reforms failed to tackle the other causes of underachievement, like deprivation and poverty.
Labour leader David Cunliffe's dismissal of the plan as underwhelming was also an admission that Key had stolen his thunder.
The Labour leader's state of the nation speech on Monday looks likely to focus on education as part of a wider mantra about the gap between the haves and the have-nots widening under National.
Key's comments on Thursday about the right to a good education being a cornerstone of the egalitarian society were an acknowledgement that National is also picking up on rumblings about inequality.
But Labour still has a challenge pitching its campaign theme against the backdrop of a "rock star" economic recovery which even the likes of the Wall Street Journal have been gushing over.
National's response – don't put it all at risk – may prove more potent among voters hoping to finally reap the dividends of five years of belt-tightening.
But this being an election year nothing can be taken for granted. Anything can, and probably will, happen.
So for those of you who may have forgotten what election campaigns are like, this is a pocket guide to the five things to watch out for.
Pork barrel promises
Austerity has been de rigueur for so long younger voters may have only a hazy recall of the days when elections were won or lost on hip pocket promises. Labour won a tight race in 2005, for instance, on the back of its pledge to scrap interest on student loans and deliver a generous increase in Working for Families.
With the books close to being back in the black, and the 2014 elections shaping up to be just as tight as 2005, politicians could be tempted to break out the chequebook again, however.
Cunliffe launched his political year by declaring he had an extra $1.5 billion to spend after axing old promises to scrap GST on fresh fruit and veges and make the first $5000 of income tax-free.
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Bill English is looking decidedly less flinty after softening his opposition to an extension to paid parental leave. Tax cuts anyone?
Whether it be caging themselves in support of animal welfare, kissing babies, eating live huhu grubs, planking, dressing up in silly gear or doing the latest dance craze, anything goes for our politicians on the campaign trail, so long as it gets them on the telly.
The flip side is that even with a legion of spin doctors, advance scouts and others watching out for them, things can easily go pear-shaped. Remember the teapot tapes?
In these days of Twitter, 24/7 news and YouTube, the diaries of party leaders are guarded like Fort Knox. Advance notice gives their opponents time to organise a protest or cook up ways to sabotage the event or embarrass them.
Consequently, there is a bit of cloak and dagger when it comes to advising media where they need to be. A few days out they might know the name of the city so they can book their flights, but they won't know the venue till a few hours in advance.
Scandals can derail an election campaign. That is why politicians love them. But scandals can also backfire in spectacular fashion. The air finally went out of Labour's election campaign in 2008 when it was discovered it had been trawling through court records trying to dig up dirt on Key.
Thought you could escape the election by turning off your telly and refusing to pick up a newspaper? Think again. You can barely move for tripping over a politician and their entourage of minders, MPs, police, cameras and journalists at the local shopping mall some days.
Fortunately you will get plenty of time to see them coming.
- Fairfax Media