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German conservatives hail Merkel

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BERLIN, Germany (CNN) -- Germany's conservatives have launched the main phase of their election campaign, confirming Angela Merkel as their candidate to unseat leftist Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in the September 18 poll.

But the gathering of nearly 10,000 delegates in the western state of North Rhine Westphalia on Sunday sought to steer clear of controversy.

The state -- Germany's most populous -- had been a stronghold of Schroeder's Social Democrats, but fell to the conservatives in May, prompting Schroeder to call for elections a year early.

Observers say the American-style media event underlined growing confidence that the election will see Merkel installed as Germany's first woman chancellor.

For the Christian Democrats, the rally marked the beginning of what they call the "hot phase" -- the last stretch of what they hope is the road to victory.

Merkel's speech pounded away at seven years of Schroeder's government, when unemployment reached a post-war high of five million, or 12 percent.

"The country has become colder. The red-green governing coalition has separated people and that's why we have to say the result is catastrophic," she said.

"Germany needs a better, a new government. Red-green has failed, Germany needs a change!"

The sole piece of business on the agenda -- the formal election of Merkel's trusted lieutenant Volker Kauder as party general secretary -- was dealt with swiftly, leaving speakers to get on with praising Merkel and blasting Schroeder.

Warmed up by light shows and a band playing covers by British rock legends Queen, reportedly a favorite of Kauder's, the rally was packed with supporters in orange t-shirts waving "Angie" signs and chanting Merkel's nickname.

There was even a cordial reception for Stoiber, the powerful head of the CDU's sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

The two parties have had a turbulent relationship and Stoiber has received an icy reception at previous CDU meetings.

His recent comments about "frustrated" voters in the former communist Eastern Germany who should not be allowed to decide the election and who were like "stupid calves" sparked days of controversy and threatened to derail the conservative campaign.

But on Sunday he was firmly on-message, lambasting the left and throwing his weight behind Merkel. "Schroeder should take his pension. Angela Merkel for chancellor. That's what we're fighting for," he said, to loud cheers.

CDU delegate Uwe Conradt told the rally: ''People have fear of the future and she stands for a new Germany, a more powerful Germany, a stronger Germany with less unemployment.''

The gathering avoided debate and observers said it appeared to be a kind of pre-victory celebration.

CNN's Chris Burns described the event as more a pep rally than a party convention.

"Barely three weeks away from elections, better to paper over differences than slug it out over policy, and differences there are," he said.

"The thorniest issue of late is that Merkel's shadow finance minister wants a 25 percent flat tax and no loopholes as a way to stimulate the economy. The left says it will mainly benefit the rich, and some among Merkel's ranks object too," Burns said.

Despite the risk of turning off voters, delegates stood behind Merkel's call for a sales tax increase, designed to offset a cut in payroll taxes in order to boost hiring.

Delegate Gabriella Precken said: "Our cots of work are so high, we're not able to have competition with the rest of the world.''

Recent opinion polls have given the CDU a steady lead of between 12 to 16 points over the Social Democrats (SPD), meaning Merkel, a pastor's daughter and former physicist, looks a near certainty to become chancellor.

The only question appears to be whether she will lead a coalition with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) or whether the combined strength of the other parties, boosted by strong support in Eastern Germany for a new leftist alliance, will force her into a "grand coalition" with the SPD.

But with the high hopes, come high risks, Burns says. "She is trying to keep her troops in line and stay on message, so not to let victory slip out of reach."

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