The path of the leading German candidate for chancellor parallels Clinton's

April 10, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau of The Sun

BERLIN -- There is something familiar about this 40-something man's quest for his country's highest office.

Maybe it's his top three issues: the economy, the economy and the economy, stupid, although his enemies say he'd be a tax-and-spend nightmare.

Maybe it's the way he's steering a leftward political party back toward the middle after 12 years out of power. Or perhaps it's his choice of American heroes: John F. Kennedy.

This man with the Clintonesque credentials is Rudolph Scharping, and if his party's lead in opinion polls holds up through the October elections, he'll be the next chancellor of Germany.

Unnerved over NATO

This week, Mr. Scharping is scheduled to meet with President Clinton and other top U.S. officials, providing Washington's closest look yet at the bland, bearded fellow who could soon set the tone for U.S.-European relations.

It's a prospect that, despite his similarities to Mr. Clinton, unnerves some in Washington. Mr. Scharping's Social Democratic Party has never been a fan of NATO, nor of U.S.-led pleas that Germany play a greater military role in United Nations peacekeeping missions.

Only four years ago, Social Democrat leader Oskar Lafontaine, now a key member of Mr. Scharping's campaign team, called for NATO to be abolished, and only last June the party challenged Germany's participation in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Somalia, arguing in court that the military nature of the operation made it unconstitutional for German soldiers to be involved. The challenge was thrown out of court.

Mr. Scharping has tried to calm fears that such behavior will continue if he is elected. His most recent pitch came two months ago in Munich, when he told a conference of U.S. and European defense officials that the Social Democrats would be "reliable partners and not loose cannons . . . You do not have to be afraid of a new government for reasons of foreign policy."

Hard promise to keep

Not everyone is convinced that Mr. Scharping would be able to keep his word, even if he wanted to, especially if his party ends up in a governing coalition with the Greens, who lean further left.

No doubt the topic will come up early and often during Mr. Scharping's visit.

But the toughest selling job remaining for Mr. Scharping is to persuade the German public that his party is ready to govern.

Polls, even after some narrowing lately, show that in a head-to-head race with Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Mr. Scharping would win with a few points to spare. But that's not the way Germans elect their chancellors. The parliament does the voting, and its membership is determined by how well each party does '' in nationwide voting. In party opinion polls, Mr. Scharping's Social Democrats hold only a razor-thin lead over Mr. Kohl's Christian Democrats.

One key to the closeness, analysts say, is that the public still trusts Mr. Kohl's party more to handle the economy. Mr. Scharping also didn't help himself by recently making vague, confused statements about his plans for new taxes, which seemed to convince everyone that they'll be paying more if he's elected.

Like many Americans, most Germans have come to believe that there's no need for new revenue that couldn't be met by cutting wasteful spending. That's what 87 percent of the public said in a poll last week by the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

"The sympathy for him in the public has decreased, that's for sure," says Dieter Klingemann, a political scientist who does research for various parties. "No voter in the world likes paying taxes, nor does anyone favor the idea to raise taxes."

Nor has Mr. Scharping helped himself with his personality, and on this point the parallels with Mr. Clinton end. If Mr. Clinton has run into trouble with a reputation for personal recklessness and an image that's a touch too slick, Mr. Scharping has the opposite problem.

Dull reputation

"He has the image of the typical German schoolteacher grown old in service: boring," Mr. Klingemann says. "He has always had this image, and it is unlikely he is going to get rid of it."

He comes by this honestly, growing up as the son of a statistician in a postwar age when his country plodded forward with its nose to the grindstone. It was not a time for humor, and Mr. Scharping's fascinations might be indicated best by the title of his doctoral thesis -- "Problems occurring at a regional election campaign: the campaign of the Social Democrats for the Bundestag election in 1969 in Bad Kreuznach."

Like his opponent, Mr. Kohl, Mr. Scharping worked his way up through the political ranks, the very model of the modern major German politician. He joined the Social Democrats in high school, and before long, he became a star pupil, as one of the so-called "grandchildren" gathered at the knee of former chancellor Willy Brandt.

But others among the grandchildren always seemed to outshine him, such as Mr. Lafontaine, who took over the party long enough to lose to Mr. Kohl in 1990.

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