The race to replace Jacinda Ardern was on Friday shaping up as a contest between a safe pair of hands and a surprise candidate who could become New Zealand's first Maori prime minister.

The next prime minister will be chosen from within Ardern's ruling Labour Party, which will meet on Sunday to discuss the contenders.

Whoever is chosen will have less than 10 months to turn around the government's sagging popularity, before facing a resurgent opposition in an October general election.

- Chris Hipkins -

Chris Hipkins, who became a household name when he led New Zealand's tough response to the Covid-19 pandemic, is being touted as the front-runner.

The 44-year-old won plaudits for his near two-year term as the Covid response minister in a country that shut down its borders to keep the coronavirus out, only fully reopening in August last year.

Widely seen as a safe pair of hands with more than 14 years in parliament, he conceded last year that people were fed up with the strict pandemic restrictions, describing the border closures as "tough going".

On a lighter note, Hipkins made an infamous slip of the tongue in 2021 when he remarked that virus restrictions made it tough for Kiwis to "go out and spread their legs", instead of stretching them.

Hipkins has been police minister since June last year, a key role given public concern over crime rates, in addition to his more than five years as education minister and public service minister.

Hipkins describes himself as an "outdoor enthusiast" keen on mountain biking, tramping and swimming.

After Ardern's surprise resignation, Hipkins told reporters he would not rule out running for the leadership but added: "At the moment I think people just need a little bit of time."

- Kiri Allan -

Former commercial lawyer Kiri Allan entered parliament in 2017 and was quickly touted as a future leader -- and possibly the country's first Maori prime minister.

Labour's sizeable Maori caucus will meet on Saturday, and is expected to have significant sway in picking the next leader.

The 39-year-old was elevated to justice minister -- an influential cabinet position -- in June last year, but is currently seen as a wildcard candidate for the top job.

She was forced to take leave from parliament in April 2021 after she was diagnosed with stage 3 cervical cancer, but returned to work just three months later.

Allan is the second-youngest of 10 children and grew up in a working-class household on New Zealand's east coast. Her father was a meat worker and her mother was a cleaner.

She married her partner Natalie in 2016, soon after New Zealand legalised same-sex marriage.

- Michael Wood -

Michael Wood is another relative political novice who has swiftly climbed up the ranks since entering parliament in 2016.

He is seen as a competent minister -- currently holding the immigration and transport portfolios -- as well as an accomplished communicator.

Wood, 42, has been responsible for lifting the minimum wage and substantially overhauling New Zealand's industrial relations laws.

At university, he worked as a Christmas tree salesman, before becoming a staffer in the union movement.