In Germany, Social Democrat Scholz Leads Race To Succeed Chancellor Merkel Social Democratic Party leader Olaf Scholz, the front-runner in the polls to succeed German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is credited for transforming Hamburg when he was the city's mayor.

This Is The Candidate To Beat In The Race To Become Germany's Next Leader

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NOEL KING, HOST:

After 16 years as Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel is stepping down. And Germans are divided over who should replace her. The emergent front-runner from the Social Democratic Party is a man named Olaf Scholz. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from Scholz's hometown.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: For the past decade, this has been the heartbeat of Hamburg.

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SCHMITZ: The pulsing sound of construction echoes along renovated buildings and canals of the city's harbor district. Germany's largest port city has transformed this neighborhood from one of rundown warehouses into a thriving cultural center filled with loft apartments, hotels and pedestrian trails, capped with a massive philharmonic hall, a glass goliath whose roof is in the shape of undulating ocean waves. Matthias Bartke, a Social Democrat member of Parliament, credits all the new construction to Olaf Scholz, who became mayor of Hamburg 10 years ago.

MATTHIAS BARTKE: We had real great housing problems. And he made, in very few years, Hamburg one of the leading cities of the continent.

SCHMITZ: And that's because, says Bartke, Scholz came in with a plan, meticulously executing it. He says Scholz would do the same as Germany's chancellor.

BARTKE: Merkel is very good in solving crisis. When there is a crisis, there are few people who can handle it better. But she has no idea about the future. And Scholz has a very clear plan about how things have to develop and should look like.

SCHMITZ: That plan starts with the minimum wage. Scholz vows to immediately raise it to 12 euros, the equivalent of around $14 an hour, a pay raise for 10 million Germans. He also wants to create more housing and make Germany's economy a greener one. But Scholz's two main rivals for chancellor have made similar promises. Observers think the difference is that Scholz has decades of experience at all levels of government and a Rolodex to match.

HEINRICH WEFING: He's kind of the identical twin of Joe Biden.

SCHMITZ: Heinrich Wefing is managing editor of the politics desk at one of Germany's largest newspapers Die Zeit. He says Scholz is a less chatty and gregarious version of Biden.

WEFING: They are both men of the apparatus. They are both centrists. They're institutionalists. They know how to get things done. And they know how to get a law passed. They know how to build consensus. They know how to build coalitions. And that is what he is best at.

SCHMITZ: Since 2018, Scholz has served as Germany's vice chancellor and finance minister. He helped keep Germany's economy afloat through the pandemic with a stimulus package that kept workers in their jobs. Wefing says Scholz's steady hand through the pandemic has convinced voters he's chancellor material, and his opponents' mistakes have convinced voters they're not.

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PRESIDENT FRANK-WALTER STEINMEIER: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: In July, during a speech by Germany's president mourning the victims of floods in the western part of the country, chancellor candidate from Merkel's center-right party Armin Laschet was caught on video laughing in the background. He apologized. But his gaffe contributed to an already plummeting popularity among voters. Scholz's other opponent, the Green party's Annalena Baerbock enjoyed strong polling numbers in the spring. But as voters scrutinized her lack of government experience, they gradually lost interest. That's left Scholz, a man who Matthias Bartke says is the closest candidate in personality to Angela Merkel.

BARTKE: I think that people are kind of unhappy to lose Angela Merkel because for 16 years, she was the symbol of stability.

SCHMITZ: A stability, says Bartke, voters see in the leadership of Scholz. His campaign has exploited this resemblance. One of Scholz's campaign posters uses German's feminine form of chancellor to proclaim, tongue in cheek, (speaking German) - or he's got what it takes to be madam chancellor. Back at Hamburg's harbor, tourists from across Germany mill outside the towering, glass philharmonic hall, a project that was nearly abandoned before Scholz as mayor renegotiated the contract, pushing through its construction. When I asked tourists which party they'll vote for, many say they're not interested in the election. Of those who are, the preferences run the gamut. But they all share one thing in common. All of them think Scholz would make a good chancellor. Christoph Homes is a security guard from a town on the Dutch border. He says he'll vote for Merkel's CDU party but expects Scholz to prevail.

CHRISTOPH HOMES: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: He's been in the game from the beginning and has served in virtually every office, says Homes, so I think Scholz would be a good leader. It's his party I'm not keen on. And I'm not sure they'll get anything done. But then again, he says, they're just not my party. Homes and tens of millions of other Germans will vote on those parties September 26.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Hamburg.

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