A few minutes into last night's Campbell Live super city mayoral debate, I thought, "is this as good as it gets?" and I'm sure I wasn't alone. The only two candidates with a shot a winning, Len Brown and John Banks, lumbered through their opening spiels, lifting their respective strategists' clumsy slogans one by one from the big bag of clichés and dumping them down in front of the audience.
In fact, for Banks, the opening address probably was as good as it got. While Brown seemed uncomfortable and unfamiliar with his new attack lines, Banks was fairly crisp and spoke in sentences. It didn't really matter that he couldn't fill his allotted 60 seconds.
But from there, Auckland City's mayor lost his way; bragging about motorway building in response to a viewer question about public transport and lurching off into a lecture about CCOs as he tried to talk about inclusion and ethnic minorities. Brown, on the other hand, seemed to relax as he went on, occasionally offering glimpses of how he might really be as a person.
Which still isn't say that Brown performed particularly well. It's hard to escape the feeling that a composed and articulate candidate for this crucial elected post would win the mayoral vote at a canter. But there isn't one of those, and this is what we have to work with.
But the campaign itself has not been meaningless. Banks' steady shift to what would, on his own turf, have been centre-left positions on transport investment, water services and more indicate a reading of the electorate's feelings that will, should sentiments transform into votes, produce a civic culture that won't be what many of his supporters wanted.
Brown's job – and he tried plenty of it in the debate – is to cast doubt on Banks' various conversions; to ask whether the centre right's candidate will deliver on his fine words. Whether he'll even try.
It would, of course, have been easier for Brown to campaign on trust had he not frittered away so much trust in himself before the campaign even began. Even people who might have been inclined to look beyond Brown's inappropriate credit card spending – all reported to his chief executive, all paid back well before it became a story – found themselves uncomfortable with his response to the controversy. The guy who was going to get the default vote made voters question whether he was really up to the job.
And yet, despite all that, it will probably be an appeal to trust that drags Brown through. I can look past Banks' comic rat-a-tat and conclude that he must have some administrative competence, but I cannot summon any trust in a number of the people around him. We've had enough trouble at the hands of Act Party chancers on the national stage – why would we invite them in to our shiny new Super City?
For now, if you're confused, you have a right to be. When I drive past the hoardings crowding every public corner, I struggle to even tell who I'm voting for. Candidates are advertising well out of their wards and the rather odd Tenby Powell, standing for council in Waitemata and Gulf, seems to have his face everywhere. I'm sure the ballot forms will clear up some of that confusion. And not before time. It would be nice to think that this thing will get less weird as it reaches its conclusion.