RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
German elections are less than a month away and the conservative candidate who is challenging Gerhard Schroeder is expected to win, but recent gaffes by her Christian Democrat Union party have tightened the race. NPR's Rachel Martin reports from Berlin.
RACHEL MARTIN reporting:
Thousands of people packed into the center of Dresden's old city last week for a CDU rally. Some are loyal supporters of the party. Others are here out of curiosity, waiting to see if Angela Merkel can live up to the CDU's hype. Techno music blasts from an elaborate grandstand flanked by two large video projection screens. Towering in the background is Frauenkirche, the 11th-century church destroyed along with the rest of this East German city, by the Allied fire bombings in World War II. It's a sharp contrast that illustrates where East Germans have been and where they want to go. The question is: Who will lead them there?
Ms. ANGELA MERKEL: (German spoken)
MARTIN: `Here in East Germany,' Merkel says, `we have not been afraid of changes. Germany has always been at the top of economic growth in Europe. We need to get back to that, back to where the federal republic used to be.'
But Merkel's rhetoric about resurrecting the German economy wasn't enough to win Peter Hoffman's(ph) vote. He was 13 years old when the Allies bombed Dresden during World War II. Today, he is more concerned about Merkel's foreign policy.
Mr. PETER HOFFMAN: (Through Translator) In general, I'm opposed to any war. I was here during the aerial bombing. I was buried for eight hours and survived with my family by the skin of our teeth. I'm definitely not going to support her because she's going to send troops to Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Bosnia and around the world.
MARTIN: For engineer Ralph Hartmann, the primary issue is the country's record unemployment. There are five million unemployed in Germany with a rate of close to 20 percent in the East. Hartmann praises Merkel's plan to make it cheaper for employers to hire German workers, but more than that, he believes voting in the CDU will ease the legislative gridlock in the two houses of parliament that's made it difficult for the present chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, to push through reforms.
Mr. RALPH HARTMANN (Engineer): Right now Germany has a real chance because, in the Bundesrat, the CDU has the majority. And if the CDU also gets a majority in the Bundestag, then that will make the laws much faster and much more efficient and can lead to the right direction that's really needed.
MARTIN: Although that direction may still be unclear, 24-year-old Lydea Presse of Dresden says she's voting for Merkel anyway, mainly because she isn't Gerhard Schroeder.
Ms. LYDEA PRESSE: We need a change here in Germany and she's a woman. That's a new thing here. That's the most reason that we need a change here.
Professor GERO NEUGEBAUER (Free University of Berlin): We don't know what we have to expect. She says, `I will serve Germany,' but nobody knows how. What will she do? What can she do?
MARTIN: Gero Neugebauer is a political science professor at the Free University of Berlin. He says if the election had been held two months ago, Angela Merkel and the CDU would have waltzed into power, but things have changed. An Easterner herself, Merkel has promised to address Eastern concerns like social welfare and unemployment, but her pledge to raise the sales tax by 2 percent has done little to entice the critical bloc of undecided voters in the East, and public remarks by her political colleague against Easterners haven't helped. Gero Neugebauer says that could cost the CDU the votes they need to win full control of parliament.
Prof. NEUGEBAUER: They could blame themselves after the elections if they should realize that the missing 2 or 3 percent were lost in the East. That's their problem.
MARTIN: Many analysts are still convinced the CDU will win on September 18th, but to do that, they say Merkel will have to convince East Germans that she's more than just a change in a status quo.
Unidentified Man: Angela Merkel.
(Soundbite of song "Angie")
Mr. MICK JAGGER: (Singing) Angie, Angie.
MARTIN: Rachel Martin, NPR News, Berlin.
(Soundbite of song "Angie"
Mr. JAGGER: (Singing) ...lead us from here.
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