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Socialist leader with unbeatable charisma faces sharp challenge in Spain Polls put Gonzalez, foe in dead heat


MADRID, Spain -- Over much of the past decade, to Spaniards and foreigners alike, Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez has personified the energetic new Spain that so quickly emerged from the isolation of the Francisco Franco dictatorship to embrace democracy, prosperity and integration with Europe.

True, at times his compatriots felt Mr. Gonzalez was reigning more than governing, choosing visits to Paris, London and Bonn over Valencia, Burgos or even his native Seville. But when put to the test at home, he was always unbeatable -- in elections, in debates, in charisma.

Now, with a suddenness that has surprised Spain, Mr. Gonzalez's grip on power is threatened. Having led his Socialist Party to victory in 1982, 1986 and 1989, he faces the possibility of defeat by his conservative challenger, Jose Maria Aznar, in general elections a week from today, polls say.

With the outcome likely to be decided by wavering moderates, ideology as such has not been an issue. But European socialists are nervous. Defeat in Spain would be a serious setback for a once-powerful democratic-left movement that has lost its way since the end of the Cold War.

Last year, Britain's Labor Party missed a chance to unseat the Conservatives. Corruption charges have decimated Italy's Socialists. In March, French Socialists were dumped from office, while the social democratic opposition has failed to exploit Germany's economic troubles. In Western Europe, only Norway, Denmark and Austria still have center-left prime ministers.

Certainly, Spain's opposition has had plenty to work with: The economy has gone swiftly from boom to slump, with the unemployment rate now standing at 22 percent; the Socialists have been muddied by a series of embarrassing corruption scandals; and the public is clearly tiring of the same faces in power.

The Socialists have responded that they should be judged on the "totality" of their record, which includes rapid economic growth between 1985 and 1990, improved social welfare, Spain's entry into the European Community and such image boosters as the Summer Olympics in Barcelona last year.

But polls, which have recorded no significant swings in opinion since the elections were called on April 12, still say the Socialists and the conservative People's Party are virtually neck and neck, with each likely to garner around 33 percent of votes and neither given any hope of winning a majority of seats in the 350-member lower house of Congress.

For Mr. Gonzalez, 51, who has had an effective parliamentary majority since 1982, this already represents a political defeat because, even if the Socialists emerge with the largest number of seats next Sunday, he will have the uncomfortable job of trying to form a coalition government with Catalan, Basque nationalists and other regional movements.

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