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Analysis: Germans focus on TV debate

By Kristina Cooke for CNN

Merkel's camp are insisting on one TV debate, not two.


Joschka Fischer
Angela Merkel
Oskar Lafontaine

(CNN) -- Angela Merkel may be tipped to win the German elections this Autumn, but in an upcoming TV debate with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, she is still seen to be the underdog.

While the Christian Democrats (CDU) are comfortably ahead with 41 percent compared to the Social Democrat (SPD)'s 29 percent, when it comes to leadership personalities, there is not much separating Merkel and Schroeder in the polls.

Not surprisingly, then, Schroeder has consistently called for a personality-driven election campaign, focused on the two leading figures, whilst the CDU says it wants the campaign to be about party policies not personalities.

Schroeder says he is looking forward to debating on German TV about who should lead the country. Merkel, too, says she is keen to "let the audience know what she stands for" (something that many Germans say they're still unclear about.)

However, Merkel's camp is adamant that, due to the shortness of the election campaign, there is only time for one debate rather than two.

Speaking in Bavaria on Saturday, Schroeder called on Merkel to reconsider, saying there was plenty of time before the September 18 elections.

He said if there is another reason for not wanting to participate in two debates, she should be honest about what that reason is. Parliamentary spokesperson Bela Anda also asked if Merkel "had something to hide from the national TV audience".

Merkel has been warned about taking part in these debates by many of her allies, not least by Guido Westerwelle, the head of the Liberals (FDP). He said Schroeder's invitation to do a live TV debate was nothing short of "poisonous." Schroeder, he said, is a shameless "media flirt."

Compared to the media-savvy Schroeder, Merkel is generally described as uncharismatic. She has had a rough time with the German media -- when her candidacy was announced, the German tabloid "Bild" ran the headline "Die? Nie!" (Her? Never!)

As an East German, Protestant female she does not tick any of the usual boxes for a CDU Chancellor candidate. She has also been ridiculed because of her unstylish haircut, frumpy appearance and for being "uncultured."

She has worked on her image -- smiling more, overhauling her appearance with a new haircut by a top stylist and by wearing more flattering cuts and colors. In recent interviews she has, on more than one occasion, brought up her love of Wagner and of literature.

But is this enough? According to German public relations experts, Schroeder is very adept at spontaneous debate and public speaking. Merkel, it would appear, is not.

In her parliamentary speech earlier this month following the dissolution of the Bundestag, Merkel seemed ill at ease -- stuttering and stumbling over her sentences.

Debates have become an expected part of the German election campaign. Germany's first live-TV debates took place in the run-up to the last election in 2002. Over 14 million viewers tuned in for each of the two debates to see Schroeder take on and beat the then Conservative candidate Edmund Stoiber.

German TV stations SAT1, RTL, ARD and ZDF are hoping for two debates this time as well, as viewing figures show that this is a format that gets the public interested in politics. Surely, representatives say, it would be in the interest of the politicians to increase voter turnout in the coming elections.

Millions of German viewers are likely to tune into the 60-minute debate (or possibly debates), to watch the candidates battle it out over policies and leadership styles.

However, even if Schroeder does win the TV debate, with a poll rating of a mere 29 percent, it is questionable whether it will be enough to ultimately affect the outcome of the elections in September.

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