The Man Who Would Be Germany's Next Chancellor

A state election on Sunday could decide who faces the long-reigning Kohl this fall.

Tine & the Orions, a four-piece band, strikes up a jazzy tune as the candidate enters the packed community hall in this industrial town in northern Germany. Cheers go up and onlookers stand to catch a glimpse as he passes to the front of the hall with a gaggle of bodyguards and photographers.

The candidate is Gerhard Schrder, the incumbent prime minister of Lower Saxony. But his campaign is more than just a race for reelection in the country's fourth-most-populous state. When Lower Saxony's 6.3 million voters go to the polls March 1, they will be indirectly deciding on the future of the country.

Nationwide opinion polls indicate the immensely popular Mr. Schrder could easily defeat Chancellor Helmut Kohl if September's federal elections were held today.

In Schrder's home state, the crucial question is not whether the Social Democrat will defeat his challenger from Mr. Kohl's Christian Democratic Union, but by how much.

Schrder has said that if he wins at least 42.3 percent of the vote - two percentage points less than his party gained in the 1994 state election - he will run for chancellor in the fall.

"It makes sense that politicians think of people's feelings," Schrder says to roaring applause before a sympathetic crowd in Peine. Many of his listeners work at the local steel plant, which his government recently saved from takeover by an Austrian investor by buying up 51 percent of the company's shares.

Nobody here pays heed to the critics who accuse Schrder of rolling back privatization or buying votes shortly before the election, and the premier knows it.

"Should decent workers not have a chance anymore in this country?" he asks.

Though dressed in a three-piece suit, Schrder easily presents himself as a man of the people. His speech is peppered with barbs against "decisions made in company headquarters," "those guys in Bonn," and "analysts in the banks."

While opponents accuse him of populism, his ability to win over listeners is undeniable.

"I liked his arguments," says Manfred Schiffner, a retired supermarket manager, after the speech. Antje Zimmermann, an insurance representative who belongs to the local chapter of the Social Democrats' youth wing, says she was impressed with Schrder's "youthful, powerful presence."

A steelworker for 42 years, Karl-Heinz Arnold is well aware of the paradox that the more votes Schrder gets, the less likely it is that he will actually serve another term. "He'd be a better chancellor than the one we've had for the last 15 years," says Mr. Arnold.

Two-thirds of Germans are ready for a change in Bonn, according to a survey this month by the Infratest polling institute.

Schrder is considered the Social Democrats' best hope to regain the federal government after four failed attempts. But without clearing the first hurdle in Lower Saxony, he cannot be their candidate. Oskar Lafontaine, who lost to Kohl in 1990, has also said that he would run for chancellor. And as chairman of the Social Democratic Party, Mr. Lafontaine makes the final decision on its candidate.

Known for his acumen and traditional liberal views, Lafontaine is more popular with the party's left wing. But it is Schrder's middle-of-the-road political stance that makes him appealing to so many Germans.

Schrder openly admires President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, two politicians who clinched national elections by moving to the center.

"I think he's a lot like Clinton in his political development," says Bela Anda, co-author of "Gerhard Schrder: A Biography."

Mr. Anda adds that Schrder has studied the American president's successful campaigns and met with Dick Morris, Clinton's 1992 election mastermind.

Critics charge Schrder with political opportunism, and liberals lament his centrist views on environmental issues, crime, and social welfare. The accusations have not damaged Schrder's popularity, however, and when he goes on the campaign trail, he exudes self-confidence.

In Peine, for example, Schrder didn't mention his challenger, Christian Wulff, a single time by name. Chancellor Kohl evidently sees Schrder as a greater threat than Lafontaine, and has made several campaign swings through Lower Saxony on Mr. Wulff's behalf.

As more than 90 percent of the state's voters already think Schrder will win Sunday's state election, some Social Democrats worry voters may stay home. Although his chances still look good, the stakes are high. If Schrder wins convincingly, he has all the makings to be the Social Democratic candidate in the fall. But if he fails, he has said he won't seek the office of chancellor again.

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