Schroder Starts Campaign With Attack

BERLIN -- Chancellor Gerhard Schroder kicked off his election campaign with an immediate attempt to exploit the conservative opposition's infighting, hoping to build on his beleaguered party's recent rise in polls.

Before launching into a defense of the unpopular social welfare reforms his Social Democrats have pushed through, Schroder attacked the Christian Democrats' leader, Angela Merkel, and highlighted her strife with Edmund Stoiber, the head of the sister Christian Social Union, who recently called into question the intelligence of voters in the depressed east.

"The strong-arm tactics and tastelessness of Mr. Stoiber and the leadership shortcomings of Ms. Merkel are not tailored to bringing this country together," Schroder told an outdoor rally Saturday in his hometown of Hannover.

With the Sept. 18 elections nearing, Schroder's Social Democrats still trail far behind the Christian Democrats. In the hypothetical direct election of a new chancellor, the poll by the Emnid agency for N24 television gave Schroder 46 percent support, up from 41 percent in June, compared to 39 percent for Merkel, up from 37 percent.

A wily veteran campaigner, Schroder is hoping to capitalize on his personal popularity. When behind in the months before the 2002 election, Schroder ratcheted up his anti-Iraq war rhetoric and donned high galoshes to visit eastern cities flooded by overflowing rivers, garnering enough grass-roots support to win narrow re-election.

He revisited the first theme Saturday, saying that Germany's "friends" in Europe and the United States must maintain a strong position with Tehran in negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.

"But take the military options off of the table; we have seen that they're not suitable," Schroder said, in apparent reference to U.S. President George W. Bush's statement on Friday that "all options are on the table."

The chancellor also turned his attention to turmoil within the opposition.

Merkel, who started her campaign on Wednesday, had immediately to take the defensive to control the potential damage caused by Stoiber, the governor of Bavaria as well as head of the CSU.

Stoiber on Wednesday said he did not want the east to swing the Sept. 18 election -- a reference to the voters in six eastern states who helped return Schroder to office in 2002 when Stoiber himself was the CDU/CSU challenger.

"Unfortunately, we don't have such intelligent citizens everywhere as we do in Bavaria," Stoiber said in comments he later said were not meant to insult the intelligence of eastern voters.

Merkel, an east German herself, reacted harshly, saying that insulting voters was "the last thing we need," and calling for politicians to avoid reopening the country's lingering east-west divide.