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Merkel's challenger Schulz raises curtain on bid to lead Germany

Newly announced as the Social Democrats' candidate to be chancellor, Martin Schulz was a hit with the party faithful in Germany's old industrial heartland. The big test will be winning over the rest of the country.

By the time everyone had filtered in to get a glimpse of Angela Merkel's new opponent from the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), it was standing room only.

The event in Wanne-Eickel - where Martin Schulz's mother-in-law was born - was initially intended as a local policy forum. The SPD's new rising star was a late addition to the bill. It had been originally been estimated that about 70 people might attend. Instead, there were up to 600.

When theater director Christian Stratmann opened the Mondpalast ("Moon Palace") in the early 2000s, he said it was expressly designed to serve regional "cliches" - coal miners, pigeon breeders, football fans.

Watch video 01:26

Can Schulz shake up the German election?

For Schulz, who is set to square off with Angela Merkel in this year's general election after stepping down as president of the European Parliament, it was therefore an appropriate venue to make his opening steps when it comes to winning over the public.

Schulz was provisionally nominated as the SPD'S chancellor candidate last week, after a decision by former economy minister and party leader Sigmar Gabriel to make way.  After four years at the helm of the junior partner party with Angela Merkel's Grand Coalition, many even within the SPD complained Gabriel was tainted, jaded, or simply not likeable enough.

Christiane Völker and Martina Willbring, from the nearby town of Castrop Rauxel, were dyed-in-the-wool SPD supporters, and big fans of Schulz.

"I think the confidence is there," said Völker, who told DW she thought the fact that Schulz had never been part of the Grand Coalition with Merkel's conservatives was a big help. "He's authentic, human. Not stale. He's not from inside the Grand Coalition, he comes from outside it."

Deutschland Christiane Völker und Martina Willbring beim Schulz Auftritt in Herne (DW/R. Connor)

Christiane Völker and Martina Willbring both saw good reason to be confident

Party memorabilia

Willbring, whose well-preserved autograph book contains the signature of former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, said she was optimistic. "I think he's a magnificent candidate. I think it's great that he's doing it. He speaks to the people. He knows their worries and their problems and I think he's going to do well and I wish him the best of luck in becoming the next chancellor."

Wanne-Eickel, famed for its coal and bread, is typical of the true SPD's traditional heartland - the Ruhrgebiet. But it's also a place where the party fears losing ground to the anti-Europe, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD). And it's the sort of area that would be key for the SPD to achieve its dream of overtaking Merkel's conservatives as the major political force in the land.

Playing to a home crowd

The reception at Mondpalast, at least, was a friendly one. A crowd had assembled outside the venue long before the doors were due to open. 

Deutschland Martin Kortmann beim Schulz Auftritt in Herne (DW/R. Connor)

The house was packed to the rafters long before Schulz made his grand entrance

While those gathered were mainly older voters, there was a healthy smattering of young people - and those in between.

Alexander Vogt, an SPD member of North Rhine-Westphalia's state parliament, said Schulz had re-energized the party in a way that had not been seen since Schröder won an election against long-time incumbent Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

"We are feeling a new spirit of optimism at the moment. He has great approval ratings inside and outside of the party. We have already begun to narrow the gap."

Riled by snobbery

As Schulz ascended the stage, he was greeted with  sumptuous applause. Throughout, he was keen to emphasize his North Rhine-Westphalia credentials, and his down-to-earthness. He also bemoaned a sort of media snobbery that highlights his having no high school certificate that would qualify him for university, the German Abitur.

Deutschland Schulz Auftritt in Herne (DW/R. Connor)

Schulz defended his past, saying he understood voters' concerns better than those who sniped at him

"My God, the things that I have to hear. I have no Abitur. True. I have no Abitur. That I come from Würselen, yes true. And I'm not ashamed. I'm not ashamed that I come from a town in North Rhine-Westphalia, which is my home and where I lived in the same part of town where I worked as mayor. And perhaps I know the cares and needs of my neighbors - the postman, the unemployed person, my sick neighbor who is a pensioner - better than someone who badmouths me in the newspaper feature pages."

It was a receptive crowd. Most clapped as Schulz addressed the need for Germany to be "fairer," his pride in the country's response to the refugee crisis, and the need to tell US President Donald Trump that Germany is happy with the way it does things, and is not about to change.

'The only candidate'

Enthusiasm for Schulz's words was evident while talking to members of the party faithful, such as Manfred Hülsman and Jürgen Sunderwerth, both from Herne.

"For a long time, he's been the only candidate that would conduct an actively offensive campaign," Hülsman said. "Until now the SPD has been a little defensive, was a little afraid of Merkel. He's the only one saying we'll have distinct campaign. He is actually very refreshing."

Deutschland Manfred Hülsman beim Schulz Auftritt in Herne (DW/R. Connor)

Manfred Hülsman thought the SPD has been a little too defensive, but that's now changed

For Sunderwerth, Schulz's promise to make the rich pay what he sees as a fairer share of the tax burden was a big vote winner. "I think we have now, at this moment, the best candidate that could lead us as chancellor. He's open, he's one of the people. He understands the people and their foibles. You saw it in his speech."

'Time for Martin?'

Indeed, the latest polls show an upswing for the SDP, with a slight slide for Merkel's conservatives. Sporting an SPD-red tie and a badge featuring Schulz's face and the words "Time for Martin," borough mayor for the Eickel district Martin Kortmann said the party was buzzing with excitement.

"Martin Schulz has brought a great euphoria to the SPD," said Kortmann. "He's obviously in it to win it. You don't go into an election campaign to come out second best. You already see it in the mood of the party and in the general population that Martin Schulz would be more favorably accepted than Sigmar Gabriel as candidate to be chancellor, although Sigmar Gabriel has done outstanding work for the party."

"You see it in the opinion polls coming out at the moment," he added. "We can catch up by September, for sure."

Deutschland Sarah Miggenborg beim Schulz Auftritt in Herne (DW/R. Connor)

Sarah Miggenborg was interested in the details of how Schulz would deliver his policies

Sarah Miggenborg described herself as more of a political neutral. She was a little more circumspect but agreed that Schulz was a better candidate than Gabriel. "Certainly he scores more points in terms of popularity. He's close to the people. It will be interesting when the election is over. Will the same be done as he said today? His aims are good - fairness - but the path to get there, that's not been addressed yet. He seems very likeable, very genuine, and in that respect I think he's a suitable candidate."

The SPD will need to work hard to win over neutrals, especially if it hopes to overtake Merkel's Christian Democrats. The populist-right AfD, meanwhile, will be keen to eat into the party's core vote amid concern over refugees and migrants in an area where industry has collapsed, and unemployment remains relatively high.

For Schulz, simple likeability might not be enough.

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