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Germany

With Fighting Words, Stoiber Launches Final Campaign Leg

With his lead in the polls slipping, Stoiber volleyed heated salvos at the Social Democrats and the Greens during a rally in Düsseldorf on Sunday which was intended to mark the final phase of the election campaign.

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A beaming Edmund Stoiber after his speech in Düsseldorf

With three weeks to go before federal elections here in Germany, the opposition conservatives have recently seen what was a substantial lead over Chancellor Schröder's Social Democrats melt away. So conservative challenger Stoiber knew he was under pressure on Sunday when he set out to rally his forces.

But the trip up in the polls wasn't the only stumble Stoiber made on Sunday. During his speech, the Bavarian premier literally tripped and fell to his hands on the stage (photo), taking a few seconds to regain his composure.

Edmund Stoiber die Treppe hoch

Edmund Stoiber

In his hour-long speech in front of more than 10,000 Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union faithful (CSU), Stoiber took the government, led by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, to task for "four years of stagnation," that caused the economy to stall and unemployment to soar. He accused Schröder of "failure" in his economic and labor market policies and swore to the crowd that he would deliver a victory for the Union bloc when Germans convene at the polls on September 22.

"We can win and we want to win," Stoiber proclaimed.

The swing state

There was little mystery behind the parties' choice of venue to hold their rally. Düsseldorf is the capital of North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state in Germany and also the state most political analysts believe will carry the election, since it has the most undecided voters.

And on Sunday, Stoiber and company did their best to sway them.

The last in Europe

After four years of Social Democratic and Green leadership, Stoiber said, Germany had fallen to the bottom of the heap, economically in Europe in terms of growth, and had moved to the top of the list for corporate bankruptcies. This election, he said, would be nothing less than a decision over the future direction Germany should take to repair its economic malaise.

"The real dilemma we face today is how to create jobs for the four million unemployed," he said. "How to create opportunities in jobs and training for young people -- even though there are ever fewer of them."

Merkel: Ditch the "steady hand"

Also speaking before the crowd, CDU chairwoman Angela Merkel took shots at the chancellor, saying that his "steady hand" leadership needed to be replaced with "frequent actions." Both Merkel and Stoiber reiterated the central ideas of their so-called "Start Program." Under a CDU/CSU-led government, they pledged, small and medium-sized businesses would receive greater support, red tape and bureaucracy would be reduced and taxes would be cut. She also promised additional support for families, including better access to child care.

Both politicians reiterated that Germany would reject any effort on the part of the United States to go to war with Iraq without first consulting with and obtaining the support of Germany and its European partners.

Strife with the FDP

Separately, in an interview with the newsweekly "Der Spiegel" published on Sunday, Stoiber demanded that the leader of the Free Democrats provide clarity over whether his party would seek to enter into a coalition government with the Union bloc.

"I expect that the FDP will show clear tendency so that voters can be certain that their votes will lead to a change in government rather than a coalition of many parties," Stoiber told the magazine. The FDP is seen as the likely coalition partner for a Union-bloc led government. However, recent polls show that a coalition between the FDP and the Social Democrats is also conceivable.

That's a bargaining chip that FDP chairman Guido Westerwelle is eager to milk. Though he said he would not seek to go into a coalition with both the Social Democrats and the Greens, in an interview with the newspaper "Tagesspiegel," Westerwelle said it was too soon to decide who the party's post-election bedfellows would be. "The best would be for us to negotiate with both parties in order to see which government party would enable us to carry out the most of our ideas," he said.

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