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Germany’s First Televised Debate Goes to Schroeder, Pollsters Say

By Carol J. Williams

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Bavarian Gov. Edmund Stoiber took their neck-and-neck race to lead Germany into the homes of millions Sunday with a rigorous televised debate that polls showed the incumbent won despite appearing uncharacteristically stiff and defensive.

The first televised clash between chancellor candidates in German history surprised most analysts, because the telegenic and easygoing Schroeder had been expected to dominate the exchange in style if not in substance.

But Stoiber took an aggressive tack from the onset, hammering at his opponent’s failure to reduce 10 percent unemployment despite having made that his No. 1 campaign promise when he was elected four years ago.

Confident and well-prepared, the 60-year-old challenger lashed out at Schroeder’s economic record, repeatedly challenging him to explain why he should be re-elected when he has been unable to deliver the economic turnaround German voters have demanded.

Schroeder stuck to a statesmanlike solemnity under Stoiber’s persistent needling -- a demeanor viewers apparently considered dignified. In a telephone poll of 2,237 viewers conducted by the Forsa Institute, Schroeder won higher marks on all three qualities measured: pleasantness, competence and credibility.

Two other polls, for public broadcasters ARD and ZDF, split in their assessments of which candidate “won” the debate.

“Viewers apparently liked that (Schroeder) remained calm and businesslike. They see that as a more competent response than engaging in a fight,” observed political analyst Stefan Aust of the poll results. He, like others on hand for the live broadcast, thought Stoiber had turned in the more impressive performance.

Although Schroeder has long outpolled Stoiber in one-on-one personality contests, his Social Democratic Party trails the Bavarian’s Christian Social Union and its Christian Democrat partners by between 1 and 3 percentage points. The debate was seen as a chance for Schroeder to narrow that gap by swaying some of the more than 30 percent of voters who are still undecided four weeks before the Sept. 22 vote.

“Schroeder didn’t put on a very good performance despite expectations, and Stoiber, well, he was Stoiber,” event planner and society critic Beate Wedekind told ZDF television in one of many post-mortems aired as soon as the candidates stopped speaking. “I put the score at 0-0, as neither of them took advantage of their opportunities.”

Schroeder repeated his vow to keep Germany out of any U.S.-led invasion of Iraq unless and until the U.N. Security Council endorses such action. Stoiber deftly lacerated that position while refraining from any commitment to do otherwise should he become chancellor.

While Stoiber clearly scored better on economics issues, Schroeder probably won over voters shaken by the devastating flooding with his emphasis on the government’s commitment to environmental protection, renewable energy development and compliance with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which is aimed at halting global warming.

“We want to be the ones who bring Kyoto out of the realm of theory and into real practice,” Schroeder said, noting that Germany has already cut greenhouse gas emissions by twice as much as all other European countries put together.