MUNICH, Germany - As voters prepare to pick a chancellor, no issue in Germany has received more attention than how to deal with Iraq. And depending on who wins the election Sept. 22, the United States could find one of its most important NATO allies on record as strongly opposing military action against Saddam Hussein.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, leader of the Social Democrats, has said forcefully and repeatedly that Germany will play no military or financial role in any attack on Iraq, even if the United Nations were to grant its approval.
That his poll numbers have increased since he announced his stance last month is no coincidence. Nearly two-thirds of Germans oppose involvement in military action.
That issue, along with Schroeder's handling of disastrous flooding last month, has pulled him even with Edmund Stoiber, who as leader of the conservative Christian Democrats has left open the question of military support but who has criticized Schroeder for publicly breaking with the United States, Germany's closest ally.
"I'm against a military intervention, again, very clearly, without conditions," Schroeder said Sunday in a televised debate with Stoiber. "There will be no change in the position before or after the election."
The Iraq situation has been a political gift for Schroeder, allowing him to focus attention on a stand that most Germans agree with while minimizing talk about more painful topics, such as the health of the economy and his government's failure to lower unemployment rates.
Germany's economy, Europe's largest, has been limping, and unemployment has hovered around 10 percent. The number is important in the campaign because of Schroeder's unfulfilled promises to reduce it. Stoiber is prime minister of Bavaria, the largest of Germany's federal states, where the economy has done better than in the country as a whole.
"If there were not elections right now, people in Germany would be having a very different conversation about Iraq," said Rolf Clement, a political editor at German Public Radio. "Schroeder's government has minimized the threat posed by Iraq. When you have the background of the Germans, you don't agree to go to war just because the U.S. wants to go, and that's what it looks like to Germans. They haven't been convinced a threat exists."
If the election for chancellor were based on personal popularity, Schroeder would win running away. The story he is most famous for is one from 1982. Young and reportedly very drunk, he stood outside Chancellor Helmut Kohl's official residence and demanded to be let inside. He is considered a master of television, works a crowd with the expertise of Bill Clinton and regularly spends part of his campaign rallies dribbling soccer balls with his feet, to roars of approval.
Stoiber has been compared, unfavorably, to Al Gore. Gray-haired, bespectacled and favoring three-piece suits, he talks more policy than people and, as in Sunday's debate, has a tendency to wander so deeply into complex explanations that his message becomes lost in the details. His delivery is stiff. At a campaign rally recently, he hopped on stage before an enthusiastic crowd and stumbled to the ground.
But Germany has a parliamentary system, in which voters choose local officials and a party, not a chancellor. Its economy increasingly relies on the technology sector, and Germans have become accustomed to as high a living standard as exists anywhere in Europe. Those factors tend to make issues here more important and personal popularity less important.
Still, with less than two weeks to go before the country votes, Schroeder's Social Democratic Party and Stoiber's Christian Democrats are, in most polls, dead even with anywhere from 15 percent to 30 percent of voters yet to choose.
"I'm having trouble deciding because on one hand you have Schroeder, and I like him, and on the other hand, I think I favor Stoiber's policies," Lavinia Flachung, a 21-year-old economics student, said recently as she waited for Schroeder to make a campaign appearance at Munich's main square. "There are issues like taxes and employment, and I think I agree more with Stoiber."
Schroeder, for example, has proposed paying for flood damage by delaying for one year a planned cut in taxes. Stoiber wants the tax cut as scheduled to help move the economy.
But otherwise, the two candidates have remarkably similar stands on major issues. Part of that is attributable to how Schroeder defeated Kohl to take power in 1998. Schroeder, in the model of Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, campaigned on a centrist route. He became the only candidate on Germany's left who could attract voters from the right.
His move back to the left is considered risky.
Officials in the Bush administration were outraged with Schroeder's public opposition to military action and the belittling way he announced it, calling it Bush's "adventure."
His stand also carries a risk in his race for chancellor, said Uno Wengst, deputy director of the Institute for Modern History, a think tank in Munich. From the aftermath of World War II onward, he points out, chancellors have won election when making friendly noises toward the United States. He also recognizes, though, that opposing the United States can be valuable to a German politician, especially to one in trouble.
"There is still an anti-American and pacifist tendency in his party which can be used to mobilize voters," Wengst said. "Schroeder is exploiting it only for tactical purposes, and even Stoiber is afraid to lose votes over the issue. That's why even he avoids taking a clear stance."