Germans Lean to Right ; the Campaign for Sept. 18 Election Adopts a US Style

Article excerpt

A few days after the only TV debate between Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his conservative challenger Angela Merkel in the run- up to Sept. 18 elections, the verdict was almost unanimous.

The media-savvy chancellor had, as expected, won the exchange, according to flash polls. But Germans elect parties, not the main candidates. And for three months, those poll numbers have shown Mr. Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SPD) a good 10 points behind Ms. Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) - pointing to a growing likelihood that the former East German physicist will end the chancellor's seven-year rule.

In a campaign that has taken cues from US-style spin and image- shaping, a Merkel win would bring a shift to the right that promises better communication with the US, a critical voice in the pledge to include Turkey in the European Union, and - most important - a more aggressive approach to Germany's greatest problem: the economy.

Seven years since he made his promise to bring down unemployment to less than 3 million, the country's jobless number more than 4.7 million.

The economic situation, and the political defeats it has caused his party in several state elections over the past year, is what prompted Schroeder in May to call for elections one year early.

For the roughly 30 percent of people who polls show as undecided, Sunday's debate offered little that is new. The flash polls conducted after the debate showed people had more or less expected each candidate to perform as they did: Schroeder was confident and jovial; Merkel, not as warm, but very authoritative.

The impressions gell with the packaging that hordes of advisers and campaign staff for the country's two major parties had fashioned for their lead candidates at rousing party congresses and flashy stump speeches ahead of Sunday's debate. If the methods employed - campaign theme songs, bus tours throughout the country, even call centers - look familiar, it's because they are. In shaping their candidates and messages, the parties are increasingly borrowing methods fashioned and perfected in the United States, say former media advisors and analysts.

"The Americanization of German campaigning is, above all, a professionalization of the campaigns," says Michael Spreng.

In 2002, Mr. Spreng managed the conservative candidate Edmund Stoiber's failed campaign bid to unseat Schroeder as chancellor. The election marked the first time in Germany candidates held televised debates with one another. Spreng sent an assistant to the US to research debate rules and watch videotape of past debates.

The 2005 campaign has seen even more borrowed elements from the US. Merkel's campaign team has set up a professional call center to handle queries from voters, and a so-called "rapid response" team that contradicts inaccuracies made by Schroeder in speeches or attacks on his opponent, says a CDU campaign official.

The conservatives' party congress, held on Aug. …