Germany's Schroeder Looks for Comeback

Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has been called the king of the campaign trail. His charisma and character — and popular sentiment against the Iraq war — helped win him re-election in 2002. Amid a sluggish economy, some wonder whether his political skills are enough to make voters give him another chance.

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Germans go to the polls Sunday to elect a government. A recent TV debate has helped Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of the Social Democrats close the gap on his opponent, Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats. NPR's Rachel Martin reports on how the embattled chancellor is trying to live up to his reputation as the comeback kid.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

It's Friday night in the town of Augsburg, just north of Munich, and thousands of people have crammed into an enormous tent, sitting at long wooden tables. Men, women, the young and old swig beer from liter-sized glasses as they anticipate the main attraction. They've come to see their chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, and the master campaigner does not disappoint.

Chancellor GERHARD SCHROEDER (Germany): (German spoken)

MARTIN: `We shall not try to solve all the conflicts in the world with violence,' he says. `We have to fulfill our alliance commitment, but one thing always has to be clear. The question of whether we take part in military actions shall be decided in Berlin and nowhere else and not by our strongest ally.'

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Schroeder's stand against the US war in Iraq helped him come from behind to win a close election in 2002, and the war has been a recurring theme in this campaign, but with five million people unemployed and a stagnant East Germany yet to flourish after unification, the big issue in this campaign is how to fix German's economy.

Many here are loyal SPD supporters like 75-year-old Anton Schmeed(ph) from Augsburg. He's a retired technician for the local newspaper and he says Schroeder's labor-friendly SPD is the only possible choice.

Mr. ANTON SCHMEED (German Voter): (Through Translator) There's nothing else. As a unionist, you don't vote for anybody else. The problems of the economy are not Schroeder's fault.

MARTIN: Schroeder spearheaded aggressive economic reforms last year. That included deep cuts in the state's social welfare programs, something that doesn't sit well with many here. Thirty-nine-year-old Karen Dunbara(ph) has been collecting a pension on and off for years, and she doesn't want to see it go away through Schroeder's reforms. She says Schroeder has plenty of charm and charisma but it's not enough to convince her to vote for the SPD.

Ms. KAREN DUNBARA (German Voter): I like to see him. He is a nice man, but in politics, I think he does not do things I would do.

MARTIN: Gunter Scheer(ph) is a civil servant with the local government in Augsburg, and he's voting for Angela Merkel's CDU, even though he voted for Schroeder in 2002.

Mr. GUNTER SCHEER (German Voter): Because the result of his politics are not so good. Instead, he will have the poorest people, and after seven years, they are still so great as it was before, and that's a major problem for him, I think. So I think he will not win the election because of this.

MARTIN: But his friend, Hans Shaffer(ph), disagrees. Although he himself is undecided, he says in the end people will vote for the candidate they know.

Mr. HANS SHAFFER (German Voter): (Through Translator) I think ultimately these polls will change. They'll go back to Schroeder because people feel more comfortable with him and they can't relate to Merkel.

MARTIN: That's what happened in 2002 when Schroeder and the SPD narrowly defeated the CDU and beat the odds. Polls suggest Schroeder has begun to turn the tide in his favor in this election after a televised debate against the CDU's Angela Merkel. Schroeder wooed voters with his trademark combination of statesmanship and charm, but he also tackled criticisms of his economic reforms. Citing recent reports that the German economy is on the rebound, he asked voters for patience.

Chancellor SCHROEDER: (German spoken)

MARTIN: `I'm not saying I'm content. How could I be?' he says. `But the reforms we have started that nobody dared to before are beginning to show effect and that is exactly why these policies have to be continued.' While Angela Merkel is said to have held her own in the debate, analysts declared Schroeder the winner and his poll ratings began to climb, cutting the CDU lead to 7 points.

Marcus Feldencrutian(ph) is a political reporter for the German magazine Der Spiegel. Last month, he said most people believed Schroeder was on his goodbye tour, but now that's changed.

Mr. MARCUS FELDENCRUTIAN (Der Spiegel): It's still not very likely that he stays chancellor, but compared to the situation two or three weeks ago, it's at least not impossible anymore. Gerhard Schroeder is a fighter like no one else in German politics, and the last days of campaigning, that is the time of year and the time of politics that he loves like no one else.

(Soundbite of band)

MARTIN: At the end of his speech in Augsburg, Schroeder makes a final appeal to the audience.

Chancellor SCHROEDER: (German spoken)

MARTIN: `Your vote for the SPD, for me as chancellor, that is what I am asking from you,' he says. `I'm asking for your trust.'

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Schroeder flashes his movie-star smile, makes a victory sign, then stands on a table hoisting a large beer and toasts the crowd. Voters will go to the polls Sunday to decide whether or not to give Schroeder and the SPD one more chance.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Berlin.

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