Charismatic challenger charms German voters Roguish Schroeder leads stodgy Kohl in race for chancellor

August 04, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HANOVER, Germany -- It was in the early 1980s when an impetuous politician named Gerhard Schroeder ended a beer-filled evening in Bonn by rattling the gates of the German Chancellery and shouting what would become the rallying cry of his career: "I want in here."

He may soon get his wish.

Schroeder is favored to unseat German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the Sept. 27 elections and join the growing ranks of Europe's center-left leaders, which include British Prime Minister Tony Blair and France's Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

Tomorrow, he'll be in Washington, meeting President Clinton at the White House, conferring with Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan, and giving a speech, "America and Europe: Partnership for the 21st Century."

Schroeder's pitch to the United States is simple: Germany's leadership soon may change but the country will remain America's strong ally.

"We do not intend to totally change foreign policy because we want continuity in questions like NATO, the expansion of the European Union," he said. "I think [the conversation] will be most about the fact that the Germans are interested to reach as much continuity as possible in regard to German-American relations and trans-Atlantic relations."

For 16 years, Germany has been ruled by Kohl, and Schroeder and the Social Democratic Party have been on the outside looking in. In that time, Germany's west and east reunited and the country assumed Europe's leadership role. Yet, since then, it's once-vaunted economic vitality has been sapped and unemployment has soared.

The voters appear eager for a change. And in Schroeder, who is the prime minister of Lower Saxony, they may embrace the opposite to the stodgy, dependable Kohl.

Schroeder, 54, packs charisma. With his brown hair, ready smile and tanned face, he looks great on television. He gives a good stump speech. And he cuts a roguish figure, a rarity in Germany's button-down political world. Last year, he got married for the fourth time and told reporters, "It's proof of my earnestness."

On issues, Schroeder has been tough to pin down. Mostly, he's for change, for jobs, for tax cuts and for an evenhanded policy on immigration, a hot-button issue in a country that fears any pulse in the far right.

He has a compelling, up-by-the-bootstraps story that mirrors Germany's rise from the rubble of World War II. His mother was a maid. His father, an army conscript, was killed in Romania in 1944.

Schroeder, who was born in a Westphalian village, left school at 14 to become a sales apprentice. But later, he attended night school, studied law and eventually got on the political fast track by winning the chairmanship of the Social Democrats' youth wing in 1978.

He understands English, but gives all his answers in German. He even has a sly sense of humor.

Yet humor goes only so far when Germany's leadership is at stake. In what has become by European standards a marathon political race, Schroeder is beginning to play it safe by already acting the role of chancellor. Critics have contended that his campaign is more about style than substance. Schroeder admitted he was "in a comfortable position that I don't want to change."

"I have the impression that the others are in the opposition and we are already the government," he said.

For the most part, his strategy has worked -- his poll lead is from 5 to 8 percentage points. Schroeder makes no secret that his party has tapped into the packaging skills perfected by Clinton's Democrats and Blair's Labor Party in Britain.

"Americans, of course, know what it means not only to have good messages but also to bring them across," he said.

In Germany, the political imagery can be blunt. Schroeder's party portrays Kohl as a dinosaur. Not so, claim Kohl's supporters among the Christian Democrats. They've worked up ads portraying their extra large leader as an elephant -- enormous and utterly dependable.

Kohl shouldn't be counted out. He's after an unprecedented fifth term and is campaigning hard, even chasing voters as they vacation, hitting the beaches in suit and tie.

Schroeder is mindful that in attempting to displace Kohl, he is trying to unseat a legend.

After 30 years of politics, "You reach a point where you don't say everything the other guys do is wrong and everything we do is right," he said. "I just want to make things better."

Pub Date: 8/04/98

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