TAUPO, New Zealand – Sitting on his campaign bus as it rattles through some of New Zealand's struggling smaller towns, Prime Minister Bill English says the meteoric rise of his young opponent, Jacinda Ardern, took the nation by surprise and made him question himself.
"It tests your faith in your product and your faith in your approach," English says during a rare quiet moment between the frequent stops at cafes and main streets. English enjoys these low-key meet-and-greets, a contrast to the larger rallies Ardern holds, where people treat her like a rock star.
New Zealanders vote Saturday in national elections. Opinion polls indicate the race is close, with some momentum swinging back toward the conservative incumbent after Ardern's remarkable rise energized the race when she took over as opposition leader last month.
English says the polls have been volatile, and small changes could have a big effect on the outcome.
"People have been changing their views very quickly, and I think the polls have reflected that," English says. "You've really taken what normally takes two to three years in a political cycle and telescoped it into six weeks."
Ardern laughs when asked if she ever expected to do as well as she has so far.
"You know what, I really didn't have any time to set any expectations," she says. "It was just hit the ground running, and run a campaign that was good enough to win."
At stake for both candidates is how to capitalize on New Zealand's growing economy.
English, 55, says people should stay the course after his government set the country on a path toward increasing prosperity. He has promised tax cuts. Ardern, 37, says she wants to build thousands of affordable homes to combat runaway house prices, spend more money on health care and education, and clean up polluted waterways.
At a rally at an Auckland mall, excited fans asked Ardern to take selfie after selfie with them.
"I love her dynamism, her freshness, her energy and her honesty," says Susie Powell, who attended the rally.
English says he thinks the televised debates between the two candidates helped swing the momentum his way, as people focused more on the issues and how policy changes would affect them. But his opponent accuses him of scaremongering over her plans for taxes and the economy.
"Certainly it's been somewhat frustrating dealing with their negative campaign," Ardern says. "But, from what I've seen, this is an election that's going to come down to turnout."
Ardern is hoping that if younger voters turn out in big numbers, it could help swing the election her way.
English's campaigning has gone better than many expected, including himself. The former finance minister was seen by many as more of a numbers guy than a schmoozer. But he says he's been surprised at how much he's enjoyed all the handshaking. And New Zealand, with a population of just under 5 million, is a small enough place that he's met some old colleagues by chance.
"When you've been in government, there's always some proportion of people who aren't happy with the things you've done, or haven't done," English says. "But I've found people at least polite. Very occasionally rude, but usually at least polite and often very warm."