- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 22, 2005

BERLIN — Luck, courage and skillful handling of the media have won German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder a comeback thought impossible last year when his welfare cuts plunged his party into a record series of regional election defeats and sparked talk of the “Twilight of the Chancellor.”

He has been helped by the economy, which pulled out of a three-year slump in 2004 with 1.7 percent growth, according to figures released last week. They coincided with a poll showing Mr. Schroeder’s coalition of Social Democrats and Greens neck-and-neck with the opposition conservatives and liberals for the first time since late 2002.

“Schroeder is benefiting because he refused to back down over the reforms,” said Richard Hilmer, director of the Infratest polling institute. “People still aren’t convinced the cuts will have much effect but he’s won respect by sticking to his guns.”

Mr. Schroeder’s speedy response to the Asian tsunami disaster, breaking off his Christmas vacation and putting Germany at the forefront of aid donors, also won him support ahead of fresh regional elections this year, said Mr. Hilmer.

In addition, the Jan. 1 start of unemployment benefits cuts, the most unpopular of Mr. Schroeder’s reforms so far, passed off with fewer technical hitches than expected.

Mr. Schroeder, 60, a northern German whose father died a Wehrmacht soldier in World War II and whose mother took cleaning jobs to feed the family, is known for his political resilience, but the scale of his comeback has surprised many.

Last week’s poll by the Forsa institute put the Social Democrats up one point at 35 percent, just three points short of the conservative Christian Democrats, who had enjoyed a seemingly unassailable lead of almost 20 points for much of the past two years. The Greens were at 10 percent and the liberal Free Democrats, traditional allies of the conservatives, at 7 percent.

“The conservatives mistook Schroeder’s weakness for their own strength and spent too long squabbling among each other about alternative policies,” said Karl-Heinz Nassmacher, political analyst at Oldenburg University.

Christian Democrat leader Angela Merkel has failed to discipline her party and has not removed doubts about whether she can beat a skilled streetfighter like Mr. Schroeder in the 2006 general election. She now trails him in a direct comparison of who Germans want as their leader, scoring 29 percent against Mr. Schroeder’s 47 percent, according to Infratest.

Miss Merkel was also hit by the resignation in December of a close ally, CDU General Secretary Laurenz Meyer, who acknowledged receiving payments from his former employer, a unit of the power company RWE, while holding top political posts.

Commentators who had written off Mr. Schroeder now say all bets are off, given his powers of recovery, last displayed before the 2002 election when his opposition to the Iraq war and firm handling of floods in eastern Germany enabled him to come from behind and beat Edmund Stoiber, Bavaria’s premier.

The rebound in opinion polls has silenced the party’s left wing, which was bitterly opposed to the welfare cuts. He now stands unchallenged in the party.

Michael Mueller, parliamentary spokesman of the SPD’s left wing, said: “He has shown he can push his policies through. Most people have now accepted he is basically doing the right thing.”

Mr. Schroeder’s ability to court sympathy via the media also has aided his recovery. His lone visit to his father’s war grave in Romania won him public sympathy last year, as did his adoption of a 3-year-old Russian daughter.

A talk-show appearance in November in which he spoke about his family, his new pet dog, Holly, and perfectly recounted a poem won much attention.

“Schroeder is intuitive, he understands how the media works, he knows they need stories, pictures, headlines, examples. No other chancellor has ever grasped that,” said Richard Schuetze, managing director of LPSE Communication, a media consultancy.

Analysts now say the 2006 World Cup being hosted by Germany could provide a pre-election boost for Mr. Schroeder, an avid soccer player in his youth who rarely misses an opportunity to kick a ball hard.

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