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On the Road with the Guidomobile

In his uphill campaign for the German chancellery, Free Democratic Party candidate Guido Westerwelle has deployed an unusual campaign weapon: a flashy yellow 15-meter-long motor home.


Camping it up with the camper

Operating under the apparent motto "there's no business like show business," Free Democratic Party (FDP) chancellor candidate Guido Westerwelle's campaign is raising eyebrows – not for its content, but for its sheer American-ness.

The idea that German national elections have become Americanized has been fodder for liters of printer's ink throughout the election campaign this year. The media made a lot out of the fact that Chancellor Gerhard Schröder hired the former editor of a famous national tabloid to run his campaign. And conservative candidate Edmund Stoiber sought to reach out to young voters by visiting a Berlin disco a few weeks back. But none have even come close to the enthusiasm with which Westerwelle has embraced showbiz politics.

Now, Westerwelle himself threatens to be overshadowed by the elephantine, eponymously named Guidomobile, a 15-meter-long (49-feet-long) motor home in which he's been traveling this summer from campground to campground in the end stretch to the German parliamentary elections on September 22.

As the German political equivalent of the famous American Oscar Meyer Wienermobile, the Guidomobile is an important part of the FDP's campaign. The gaudy yellow bus with blue lettering is intended to clarify the profile and goal of the party's chairman: The bus' namesake wants to be politically mobile and win 18 percent of the vote.

To achieve that goal, Westerwelle's been hitting the campgrounds, busting out the barbeque, volleyball and hitting the deck of sail boats with a motley crew of potential voters from every age group and socio-economic group.

A drop in popularity

It's been tough going so far. After rising to levels as high as 12 points in public opinion polls, the popularity of the liberal party -- with its business- and tax-cut friendly policies -- has dropped precipitously after Westerwelle's deputy, Jürgen Möllemann, recently bitterly attacked the vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany which were perceived by many as anti-Semitic.

In public statements, Westerwelle hasn't seemed too discouraged by his party's apparent slip. "The supposed head wind blowing against the FDP isn't real. It's something that's predominantly been taking place in the media," Westerwelle recently told the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" newspaper. He added that the difference between public and published opinion is "enormously high," and noted that the party scored the support of five percent more voters than the highest survey suggested in state elections in Saxony-Anhalt.

As the summer vacation season kicks into high gear and campgrounds fill up with holiday-goers, Westerwelle will use every media trick in his bag to distance the party from its spring scandal.

And it won't be the first time he's used media gags to boost his party's recognition in the public consciousness.

Westerwelle was the only German politician to make a guest appearance in the "Big Brother" container on television, and an upset victory with 13.28 percent of the votes in Saxony-Anhalt, he made an appearance on the popular Sabine Christiansen political talk show wearing a pair of shoes with "18" printed on the heels, which he prominently flashed at the cameras.

From campground to protest grounds

But it's the Guidomobile that's been the most-popular attraction for the party this summer, even if it sometimes attracts the wrong kinds of people. At one recent event, protesters showed up with signs like "18 Promille" -- a play on the party's campaign goal that also insinuates (in German) that the party's leaders have a blood-alcohol level of 36 parts per thousand – and "Guido, I want to have your baby."

That's the downside of building a cult of personality around your and your party. For his part, Westerwelle seems to be having the time of his life.

"When you've been on the road all day and pull into a campground at night, you get to know people and start chatting with them within minutes," he recently told the magazine "Bunte."

"One of the reasons people don't vote anymore is because of the distance politicians have put between themselves and the people. Many politicians don't even try to break the ice with people. With the Guidomobile, I want to do things differently. I want to meet people, talk and have discussions with them. Mr. Schröder and Mr. Stoiber can just keep on traveling in their Lear jets or their state coaches. Our campaign is for everyone," he said.

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