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
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. …