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In Second Debate, Schröder, Stoiber Correct Mistakes of First

Gerhard Schröder and Edmund Stoiber learn from the mistakes of their first-ever debate and revisit the muddy waters of unemployment and Iraq in their final mano a mano before Sept. 22 elections.


Look at me: Gerhard Schröder and Edmund Stoiber seek to make eye contact in their second debate

Both Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his challenger, Edmund Stoiber, showed up for their second television debate on Sunday night with the same red tie with white stripes. To some observers it might have come across as a sign of how similar the politics of these centrist politicians are. But on Sunday night, any similarities seemed to stop at the sartorial level.

The candidates, whose parties are running neck-and-neck in the latest polls, spent the first few minutes of the 75-minute debate pondering the very novelty of conducting a debate in Germany. Many of the remaining minutes were dedicated to sparring over the labor market and strained relations with the United States over its hawkish Iraq policy.

Of novelty and navel-gazing

"One can lament or welcome it, but it does represent the Americanization of the election campaign," Bavarian Premier Stoiber said. "But I think it's also going to become a symbol and that there won't ever be another federal election campaign without such a direct discussion and confrontation between the chancellor and his challenger."

For his part, Schröder told co-moderators Sabine Christiansen and Maybrit Illner that he hadn't reviewed the tapes from his previous television debate. "Of course I listened to the criticism, and the criticism from most was that we should actually try to talk to each other."

And that they did. The interaction between the two men was considerably greater on Sunday night, with exchanges that were often downright feisty. In contrast to the first debate, the candidates often interrupted each other and slung salvos at such rapid pace that the debate's moderators had trouble keeping the so-called "television duel" under control. Incumbent Schröder, who came across as overly defensive in the first debate, also seemed more secure this time around – a factor that early flash polls taken Sunday seemed to confirm.

Polls suggest a Schröder win

A viewer poll taken by pollster Infratest dimap indicated that 50 percent of Germans found Schröder more persuasive in the debate, with only 28 percent saying Stoiber carried the debate. More than 61 percent found Schröder to be the most personable as opposed to the 19 percent who though Stoiber was more likeable.

The majority of Germans surveyed by Wahlen, another prominent pollster, found Schröder to be the clear winner, with 49 percent saying he debated stronger than Stoiber, who polled at 26 percent. 24 percent said both candidates performed equally well.

But German political strategist and media advisor Jochen Keinath told DW-WORLD that neither flash poll should be taken at face value.

"Substance is all about pictures," he said. "Stoiber was perceived as too aggressive and his body language was too artificial. The chancellor was more emotional and more personal. That creates empathy with the electorate. That was the secret to Clinton's successful performance and it was behind the presence of Tony Blair and George W. Bush. On the other hand, you could compare Stoiber with the Bob Doles and the Al Gores for their stiffness."

At the same time, however, both candidates won because they "played to their target groups and won with both. You'll see Schröder spike in favorability ratings because he's a natural on television. But Stoiber will also win for coming back again and again with the unemployment issue."

Divided opinions on unemployment

The most rancorous debate came when the moderators, both hosts of their own massively popular political talk shows, raised questions about Germany's beleaguered labor market and the recent spat with the United States over the gap between the countries' Iraq policies.

As he did at the last debate, Stoiber fired the word "unemployment" whenever the opportunity arose, also accusing the chancellor of neglecting small and medium-sized businesses through what he described as homegrown economic problems. And, once again, he also accused Schröder of not keeping his promise to reduce unemployment.

This time, however, Schröder had a few new weapons in his arsenal – sentiment about the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and unemployment statistics for August that show a slight drop in the number of jobless Germany-wide but a sharp increase in Bavaria, the state governed by Stoiber.

Schröder said the current level of unemployment, more than four million people, was the product of weaknesses in the global economy and also the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Without the current stagnant economy, he said, his government would have achieved its promised goal of reducing the number of unemployed to 3.5 million people. But "we don't have any influence on external conditions," he said. The chancellor also noted that 4.9 million Germans were unemployed under the leadership of Helmut Kohl, the last chancellor to represent the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union.

Schröder on Iraq question: This is not a 'showdown' with U.S.

On the question of Iraq, Stoiber accused the chancellor of damaging the deep friendship between Germany and the United States with the tone he has used in statements about a possible U.S.-led military invasion to topple Saddam Hussein's regime. Schröder denied one moderator's characterization that he was engaging in a "showdown" with George W. Bush or any form of "isolation" with his statements on Iraq. He said that different positions do not represent a "danger to the friendship."

"This is simply about a certain question of existential nature, namely the question of war and peace, where there is very clearly a difference of opinion between Germany and the United States," Schröder said. He added later that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would lead to a meltdown of the international coalition in the war against terrorism at a time when the Taliban still hasn't been defeated in Afghanistan. Against that backdrop, he said, German troops would not participate in any military intervention against Saddam Hussein.

Stoiber, meanwhile, joined Schröder's chorus in criticizing the possibility of the U.S. "going it alone" against Iraq. But at the same time, he said, it was necessary to put "absolute pressure" on Hussein to permit weapons inspectors back into Iraq. Still, he said the decision-making monopoly on Iraq lies solely with the United Nations. "There can't and won't be any German support for any solo effort (against Iraq), including the U.S. going it alone," Stoiber said.

All the while, Stoiber tried to make his case in a way that would not further alienate Germany from its long-time ally. Peering across the studio at Schröder, challenger Stoiber also criticized the chancellor for taking his gripes with the Bush administration to the media rather than picking up the hotline to Washington. "Your predecessors, whether it was Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt or Helmut Kohl, would have picked up the telephone receiver long ago and would have spoken with Bush to explain our position – they would never have delivered them on the open market," Stoiber said. In doing so, he said, Schröder had damaged German-American relations. "And that's something that's proven in every editorial you can read," he said.

Post-Sept. 11 Security

With Sept. 11 just two days away, domestic security policy in the wake of the terrorist attacks also proved to be a key issue in the final debate. Stoiber accused the government of not having gone far enough to prevent terrorist attacks with the packages of security laws it has passed during the past year, pointing to the arrest over the weekend of a couple near Heidelberg believed to be planning a Sept. 11 anniversary terror attack as an example. Stoiber said there are more than 4,000 suspected Islamic fundamentalists in Germany who are capable of violence and that they should be deported before they have a chance to act. Additionally, he said the government needs to add biometric data, like fingerprints, to passports and visa documents in order to make it easier to ascertain a person's identity.

Schröder countered by saying the Heidelberg arrests were evidence of the success of German investigators in foiling terrorist activities during the past year. He also alluded to the necessity of civil liberties in the fight against terrorism. "According to the new law that we have, you can deport someone when the facts back up a suspicion," he said. "But they have to be facts. Rumors aren't enough and they shouldn't be enough in a constitutional state."

With election day exactly two weeks away, Sunday's debate is considered the final major opportunity for both candidates to attract voters.

But for German voters, it marked the end of the beginning of a campaign phenomenon that will likely become a permanent fixture in Berlin that has long been familiar in Washington.

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