BERLIN — 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. 21, featured a one-and-a-half-hour performance by singers from the musical "Queen" and the arrival of Merkel to raucous cheers and a sea of orange placards bearing the name "Angie," a very un-German nickname given the candidate by her campaign and likely designed to broaden her appeal.
"It was completely new in the party's history," says the official. "Almost the entire party congress was designed with show and television in mind. It was pretty modern for a conservative, white-bread party like ours."
Like the party's use of the Rolling Stones song "Angie" at stump speeches, the congress was designed to lend a little flash to a candidate who voters think of as capable, but uninspiring, says the official. "We wanted to stir up some emotions," he says.
The SPD offered a toned-down version of their party congress last week in order to serve as a contrast to the conservatives. Campaign manager Kajo Wasserhoevel said the party will use grass-roots methods like canvassing - that the SPD first learned by watching John F. Kennedy's campaign in 1960 - in the final weeks. But the party will continue to personalize the campaign, building on Schroeder's high popularity ratings in an effort to sway voters to his party.
"We want to show his strengths, his courage in reforming the country and his work for peace," says Mr. Wasserhoevel.
Some critics say this type of personalization is strange in a political system where the party, not the individual, is the focal point and worry about a campaign future based on style, not substance. But campaign veterans like Peter Radunski, a political consultant and former campaign manager for Chancellor Helmut Kohl, say it's the natural development in the age of television, and with a candidate as telegenic and accomplished in front of the camera as Schroeder.
"You could call it Americanization, but you could also call it a modernization," says Mr. Radunski. "If there's television, then you should use it."
There are some things German strategists will never be able to copy. Broadcast rules restrict campaign ads to being shown only on select channels in the evening time, sparing voters an avalanche of campaign spots.
German campaigns will also never be able to match the money shelled out by US Democrats and Republicans. Germans typically don't contribute to campaigns, and the 25 million euros ($31 million) the SPD is planning to spend and the 23 euros million the CDU will spend, pale in comparison to the figures spent on the other side of the Atlantic. Even if they had such cash, Spreng says a complete adoption of American campaign tactics would be a waste of money.
"It's never going to be as showy as in America," says Spreng. "The voters understand it's part of a show ... but they know not to mix more politics and show business. The Germans are more fact-based and skeptical."