The Ambitious German Who May Lead Europe

Gerhard Schrder may win Sept. 27 election. He's likable, but what does he stand for?

Wherever you turn in this town for an assessment of Gerhard Schrder, the man most likely to be Germany's next chancellor, you hear the same anecdote from his past.

Young Mr. Schrder, it is said, was walking past the entrance to the chancellor's office late one night after a party. Shaking the iron gates, he roared his ambition into the night: "I want in here."

Some say that has been Schrder's guiding political credo since he entered politics. "He is certainly the most ambitious politician the Social Democrats have had for generations," says Prof. Dietmar Herz of Bonn University.

What exactly Schrder stands for is hard to tell, as he chases victory in the Sept. 27 elections by being all things to all people. But if he defeats Chancellor Helmut Kohl, he will cap a year-long roll for socialists in Europe that has already put center-left leaders at the helm in Britain, France, and Italy.

Schrder's ambitions have carried him far. Born in 1944, a few days before his father was killed on the Eastern Front in World War II, he was raised by his widowed mother, who worked as a cleaning lady. He left school at 15 to find a job.

He took evening classes to get into college, and it was this struggle to get started in life, his associates say, that gave him a strong belief in the need for equal opportunity and propelled him into left-wing politics.

Schrder began his political career in the youth wing of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), where like many others of his generation in Europe he was a mainstream Marxist and demonstrated against the installation of United States nuclear missiles in what was then West Germany.

By 1990 he had won election as minister-president of the state of Lower Saxony, thus achieving national prominence. But it has been his popularity with the general public, rather than his status within his party, that has driven him up. Indeed, says Dr. Herz, "Schrder has built his profile by distancing himself from the party," which has not endeared him to SPD officialdom.

But when he won reelection in Lower Saxony convincingly last March, party leader Oskar Lafontaine - who would normally have been the SPD candidate for chancellor - made way for a proven winner.

Schrder has made himself popular in a modern mode that is familiar on both sides of the Atlantic: He is personable and telegenic, and projects a dynamic air that goes down well in a Germany tired of 16 years of rule by Helmut Kohl and his conservative Christian Democrats. The opposition candidate's complicated personal life - he recently married for the fourth time - has not impinged seriously on the campaign.

If Mr. Lafontaine is a traditional socialist, Schrder has cultivated a more modern image. He has gone out of his way to make friends in the business community. This is heresy to many on the left of a party whose backbone is the trade-union movement and has earned him the sobriquet "the bosses' comrade" among his critics.

Schrder is unconcerned, painting himself into a global canvas of newly retooled center-left leaders around the world. His campaign program, appealing to a "new center," echoes many of the themes struck by the "new Democrats" in America, and "New Labour" under Prime Minister Tony Blair in Britain.

It is this readiness to take a fresh approach that most distinguishes him from Chancellor Kohl in the public's mind, says Reinhard Schlinkert, head of the Dimap polling organization. In a recent poll, 78 percent of respondents saw Schrder as "ready to try new ways," while only 9 percent said the same of Kohl.

The emphasis Schrder puts on pragmatism, on practical solutions rather than ideological recipes, has translated into what Mr. Schlinkert calls "a substance-free, mood-oriented campaign" the likes of which Germany has never seen.

SPD television spots show ordinary citizens in good spirits and end with the slogan "We are ready," in a campaign reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's "It's Summer in America" campaign for reelection in 1984. Schrder's team has also borrowed from Bill Clinton's strategy in 1996, using the American consultants who designed Clinton's "rapid response" approach to criticism.

There is also more than a hint of Clintonism in Schrder's conscious effort to appeal across traditional party lines to the political mainstream. This is especially important in a prosperous and conservative country where "people think of what they have to lose," says Jochen Siemens, editor of the left-leaning daily Frankfurter Rundschau.

"When 75 percent of the electorate says that personally they are happy with their lives, it's just that they can't stand Helmut Kohl's face anymore, it means they don't expect a new face to make radical changes," editor Siemens says.

Hence the SPD's new slogan, on a poster outside its campaign headquarters in Bonn: "We won't change everything - we'll just do things better."

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