National’s leadership contest today looks to be going down to the wire.

The Caucus is split down the middle.

The two contenders, Christopher Luxon and Simon Bridges, were said last night to be separated by only three votes, with Luxon in the lead; 18 – 15.

But the Bridges camp last night had not given up hope and were targeting at least two of Luxon’s so-called “soft” votes.

If they get them, that would see them win the contest, albeit narrowly by 17 – 16.

However, the danger now is that neither candidate can win with sufficient margin to avoid dividing the caucus.

The only way to avoid that is for one to concede but because they are so close, neither was willing to do so yesterday.

A concession may yet come but it will only be after the candidates no more votes can be moved.

Sir John Key, who is backing Luxon, is believed to have suggested yesterday to Bridges that he concede and do a deal.

But at the same time, Luxon (with Key’s backing) is rejecting the kind of deal that Key himself did with Bill English in 2006 when he gained the leadership and allowed his rival, Bill English, to be his deputy.

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Instead, Luxon is believed to want Nicola Willis as his deputy.

That was apparently a deal breaker for Bridges.

The issue now facing both contenders is how far they take the contest.

There are also questions about Judith Collins and what she might expect in return for the votes for Luxon of herself and her four supporters, David Bennet, Andrew Bayly, Harete Hipango and Maureen Pugh.

The last thing National needs is a caucus divided in half with a leader-in-waiting ready to take up the reins.

Ideally, Key could have played a mediating role, but his support for Luxon to become leader has been evident since before the Botany MP was elected.

Luxon is refusing to speak to the media until after the caucus meeting.

POLITIK National MP Simon Bridges’ press conference in Parliament last Thursday after the caucus vote of no confidence in Judith Collins

Bridges, on the other hand, appeared last night on a podcast hosted by the left-wing blogger Malcolm “Bomber” Bradbury.

He shared the microphone with ACT Leader David Seymour and libertarian columnist Damien Grant.

Bridges had come from a book signing event in Tauranga.

And he quipped that since Judith Collins issued her press release last Wednesday demoting him over comments he had made to MP Jacqui Dean five years ago, he had had “the sort of week you could write a book about.”

It would seem that broadly speaking, the Caucus has divided along experience lines, with most of the new MPs supporting Luxon while  Bridges has the support of most of the Bill English Cabinet Ministers.

The question of Luxon’s experience is an issue.

He has asked only seven primary questions since he has been in Parliament and spoken in the general debate twice; a very limited background with which to go into debate with the battle-hardened Labour front bench.

Speaking on the podcast last night, Grant said it was clear he was a very good manager.

“But managerial skills and political leadership are different; very, very different things,” he said.

“And we have a long history. Look at the Duke of Wellington, one of the most brilliant generals of all time. Prime Minister; complete disaster.

“Just because you’re a good car mechanic doesn’t make you a good dentist.”

Bridges, with his defeat last year as leader and the events of last week still fresh in his mind, cited his own somewhat unique political experience.

“Actually, you know, experience counts,” he said.

“It is a crazy media environment; Parliament’s tough, and I’ve been through the fire.

“I’ve been beaten up, knocked down, written off, killed more times. than probably most in New Zealand politics now.

“So that experience matters.”

But Bridges was also talking policy in what appeared to be a bid to differentiate himself from Luxon’s more centrist philosophy.

That was on display in Luxon’s maiden speech in March this year.

“I believe in tackling inequality and working hard to find that balance between encouraging hard work and innovation while always ensuring there is social mobility and a safety net’ he said.

Bridges, on the other hand, wanted a clear difference with Labour

“We’ve got values and principles and policies,” he said.

“Let’s make sure we’re a Centre-Right political party.

“We don’t want to try and outdo Labour and be Labour light and try to be all things to all people.

“That’s a race to the bottom.”

Bridges might yet pull out of the race.

His long experience in the party will tell him that if the contest goes to a vote and the winning margin is only a handful of votes leaving the caucus split, no one will thank the loser.

Unity was clearly on his mind last night.

“Whatever happens, I feel very confident we will come out with a good leadership team that’s unified, and it’s going to get on track,” he said.

“It’s going to have a strategy, a plan, and it is going to implement it for the good of New Zealanders.

“I feel confident about National’s prospects; I’m not saying we will win

“I’ve thought for some time that with a good plan, people. should be rewriting National and Act’s chances of being on the Treasury benches after the next election.”

And for most caucus members, that is what it all comes down to.