OPINION: One month out from decision day, and incumbent Hamilton Mayor Julie Hardaker knows she has a fight on her hands to keep the city's top job.
On the strength of her public performances so far, Hardaker looks out of step with the public on metering residential water and fluoride, and rivals Ewan Wilson, and Dave Macpherson are making huge traction from it.
This week's Waikato Times mayoral debate was a case in point, Hardaker repeatedly having to respond to Macpherson/Wilson sallies on the two issues rather than spruiking her own ''forward-looking'' re-election platform.
While her opening remarks were on message and largely positive, by the end the lingering message for the audience was not, her parting barb that a vote for either of her rivals was ''a vote for the past'' a case in point.
She'd far rather be telling voters about the investment pouring into the city than her lone support among the big three for residential water metering, or the prospect of the referendum confirming that she is off-side on fluoride.
Fluoride is an issue separates these candidates: Wilson has the pro-vote to himself after his tenacious but divisive efforts to force the referendum.
Macpherson is prepared to bend to the public's will if necessary, while Hardaker is far less likely to despite her reluctant assurance in Frankton this week that she'll heed the outcome.
If the fluoride referendum is close and Hardaker is still mayor, watch her wriggle away from that position.
Water meters also separates the trio, with Wilson and Macpherson both strongly against, but Macpherson making all the play on the hot issue.
Hardaker looks shakiest here - such a move would likely be harder on the poor and renters, and the argument for conservation measures strong. There is clearly some anti-Hardaker sentiment, but the question looming is whether Wilson and Macpherson are diluting that potential support.
Would one stand down if it came down to it, urging their supporters to back the other in order to oust Hardaker? Probably, although the clock is ticking once voting forms go out and the votes start flowing in to officials.
Each is pushing their own policies, but the pair are far closer to each other than either is to Hardaker, Macpherson pushing social policies such as the living wage and fast-tracked playgrounds while Wilson has his economic development and family friendly ''under-5s swim free'' at the city's pools.
The Waikato Times' first poll put Hardaker out in front with 20 per cent to Wilson's 10 and Macpherson's 6, but a huge 49 per cent still undecided.
Unreleased candidate polling results conducted a week after the Times' poll suggest the Wilson-Hardaker gap is closing, but Macpherson has since made great gains with his profile after continued attacks over metering.
Hamilton has a recent history of quickly tiring then firing out its mayors, and there's time yet for the win to go to any of the leading candidates.
In Hardaker's corner is the undoubted financial improvements achieved under her tenure: she didn't get there by herself but she was a constant force in that direction of travel, and will be hopeful of winning support on it. In this election, as interesting as any city race in memory, voters are still on the fence.
Undecideds still hold the key, and candidates and those looking for a steer on the result will watch the Times' next poll with huge interest.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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