In a recent German political cartoon, one man says to another: "So, if this Stoiber wins, will the capital become Munich?"
Berlin, of course, is Germany's capital. Munich, the capital of Germany's southern state of Bavaria, is home to Edmund Stoiber, its prime minister and the rising conservative challenger for Germany's national leadership in autumn elections
If the prim, no-nonsense Mr. Stoiber, a rightward-leaning technocrat, were to take over the chancellor's office in Berlin from Germany's present leader, Gerhard Schröder, he would be the first Bavarian to lead the country since World War II.
Stoiber's party leads in polls by 4 to 6 percentage points. If his party, the conservative Christian Democrats, triumphs in September, a right-wing coalition could oust the center-left Social Democratic-led government from power, reflecting a trend toward rightist parties across Europe.
Were Stoiber's party to win on Sept. 22, he would net an honor that had for decades eluded Stoiber's political mentor, the powerful postwar Bavarian political boss, Franz-Josef Strauss.
Despite Stoiber's impressive track record in running Bavaria's regional economy, the strongest in Germany today, the thought of the austere, silver-haired technocrat at the helm of the country doesn't sit well with many Germans. Northern Germans, in particular, bristle at his style and conservative brand of politics. Although his party leads the Social Democrats in the polls, the same surveys show him trailing Chancellor Schröder in popularity by about 15 percentage points. Even in southern Germany, Stoiber's ratings fall below those of Schröder.
"The problem's not that northern Germans see Stoiber as a provincial Bavarian politician running around in lederhosen," says political scientist Michael Werz of Hannover University, "but rather that in general he comes off as unfriendly, stiff, and overly bureaucratic. He's highly unpopular, but he can still win."
In the country's parliamentary system, Germans vote for parties, not individual candidates.
The current chancellor may strike Germans as more affable and easy-going but they are unhappy with his management of the economy. In 1998, Schröder ran on a platform to slash the country's enormous jobless rolls. Germany's unemployment rate is among the highest in Western Europe. Schröder promised to bring down unemployment under 3.5 million, to about 7 percent, over four years or quit. Four years later, he hasn't brought down unemployment, and he hasn't quit. Just under four million people 9.5 percent of the population are now without jobs. Joblessness in eastern Germany stands at nearly 18 percent, the highest since German unification in 1991.
"People who four years ago voted for Schröder, now are simply fed up," says Dag Harbach, owner of a Berlin events and promotion agency.
Stoiber charges that the economic debacle is "essentially homemade" and that "proper and necessary reforms have been put off for years." But he has remained coy about the nature of the reforms he would carry out.
The conservatives know that the economy is the current government's Achilles heel.But Stoiber also acknowledges that he has an image problem, and with an eye toward sprucing it up, he hired Harbach's firm to help him win credibility in Berlin.
The media and several hundred guests packed Harbach's trendy nightclub, 90 Degrees, in downtown Berlin, for an evening publicity event. "He wanted to show that he fits into Berlin," says Harbach. "He wants to look cooler and more relaxed. But he's going to need to visit more than one discotèque once in a while to do that. He should really come more often and not leave so early."
Stoiber's lack of finesse hit a new low Saturday, when he accidentally struck a woman in the face with a ball while demonstrating his soccer skills during an election rally.
The candidate's humorless, bureaucratic air reflects his political career. The 60-year old Bavarian made his name climbing diligently and dutifully through the ranks of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of the Christian Democratic Union. He first entered the Bavarian assembly in 1974, at the age of 33, and never looked back.Today, even at boisterous venues where he makes campaign stops, his speeches often smack of antiseptic party politics. A lawyer by training, he is known as a workaholic, a man obssessed with details and results. Opinion polls show Germans find him effective and results-oriented. This is where he has an edge over the good-natured, personable Schröder, particularly on domestic issues.
Stoiber's party, the CSU, has long dominated Bavarian politics, earning Bavaria the reputation in Germany of a bastion of conservatism. But many observers wonder whether Stoiber is politically too far to the right for most Germans outside Bavaria.
"Germany's Christian Democrats have to decide whether they want to be a democratic center-right party like the Republicans in the U.S. or a ethnonationalist party, like those that have had such success recently in Denmark, Italy, and Austria," Werz says. "Stoiber doesn't seem ready to make this decision yet."
Stoiber has occasionally played the populist card on immigration, one of Germany's most sensitive issues, directly linked to the unemployment debate. He has appealed for stricter requirements for political asylum seekers and immigration in general. Domestic security and fighting crime are recurrent themes in his stump speeches.
Although he has warned against a "multicultural society on German soil," many observers think Stoiber is toeing a relatively moderate line on the volatile issues around immigration.
"If he's smart, he'll be guarded on this issue," says Adrianne Woltersdorf, city editor of the nationwide daily Die Tageszeitung, which is based in Berlin. "He can't campaign here like he's in Bavaria. It would be very dangerous." Ms. Woltersdorf also argues that in Berlin many young women, in particular, feel uncomfortable with Stoiber's conservative family policies. "Women don't want to have to fight again for things that they already fought for and won," she says, referring to benefits for single mothers, among other entitlements.
With less than two months to go before the election, surveys show that nearly 40 percent of voters remain undecided.