New Zealand goes to the polls today with Prime Minister Helen Clark in a close race to win a third term after one of the most intensely fought election campaigns here in years.
Clark and conservative challenger Don Brash campaigned up to the bitter end yesterday, battling over every last vote in the country of four million people as conflicting polls defied any confident prediction of the result.
A Herald Digi-poll released yesterday showed Clark's Labour Party had 44.6 percent of the vote, more than seven points ahead of Brash's National Party.
But two television polls on Thursday night were contradictory, one showing Labour less than two points ahead and another showing National with a six point edge.
Clark said she was hopeful about the outcome, but conceded the election remains very close.
"I can say on the ground the feeling for Labour is the same it was in 1999 and 2002 and we're very optimistic," Clark said.
Brash was cautious, saying the polls suggested the result could go either way.
"We're not taking anything for granted. We're working very hard right down to the wire," he said.
Commentators agree the election is too close to call with volatility in the polls indicating that many voters will not make up their mind until the last moment.
A Brash win would be an upset as 55-year-old Clark, in office since 1999, had appeared to be cruising to re-election after five years of strong economic growth and the low unemployment rates.
But Labour's decision to disappoint public expectations of tax cuts in its May budget -- when it announced a record surplus -- signalled a change of fortunes.
Brash, who ditched his socialist leanings for market capitalism after researching his doctorate on the effects of investment, is heading a National Party platform offering tax cuts to be worth NZ$ 3.9 billion (US$ 2.8 billion) by 2008.
He has also promised to abolish parliamentary seats reserved for the indigenous Maori and to set a time limit on settling Maori claims over land, issues that strike a chord with many conservative voters of European descent.
Clark, a wily and intelligent campaigner with 24 years experience in parliament, has been able to do little to dent the "non-politician" appeal of Brash, who only entered parliament three years ago after 14 years at the head of the central bank.
The 64-year-old Brash sometimes fluffs his lines and come across as strategically inept, but his impeccable manners, mild voice and air of calm have made a hit with voters.
Clark's personality has also become an election issue, with her gruff, sometimes aggressive manner putting some voters off.