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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Germans Unsure Who Their Front-Runner Is

BERLIN -- Rising in the male-dominated beer-and-BMW politics of Germany, Angela Merkel, who may make history Sunday, when polls in a tight election campaign predict the 51-year-old conservative will beat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to become the country's first female chancellor, is known less for eloquent speeches and charisma than for intellectual rigor and an unabashed quest for power.

Yet many Germans regard Merkel, a physicist, as aloof and inscrutable, someone who has managed to remain in the shadows while standing in the spotlight.

"The German public is finding out it doesn't know the lady very well," said Matthias Machnig, who ran Schröder's first campaign for chancellor in 1998. "Who is she? What is her foreign policy? What is her economic plan? She's powerful and willing to win, but is she the leader of a nation? That's the question."

Merkel's ascent is tied less to her personal appeal and political philosophy than to Schröder's economic failures and inability to convince ultraliberals in his Social Democratic Party to reform the welfare state. The election this weekend is viewed as a protest vote with a twist of irony: Germans seeking to dump Schröder for trimming social programs are likely to get a conservative politician intent on deeper cuts.

"People see Merkel as an alternative out of their desperation," said Gerd Langguth, who wrote a recent biography of the candidate. "She may not be, but that's how they see her now."

Personalities count in German politics, but parties win elections. Polls show Merkel's Christian Democratic Union has slipped in recent days but still has the backing of 40.5 percent of the public, compared with 34.5 percent for the Social Democrats.

Some politicians suggest the momentum has shifted and that the Schröder may have another upset in him. The chancellor has portrayed the conservatives' flat-tax proposal as an "inhuman" ploy to help the rich while further hurting the country's nearly 5 million unemployed.

"It'd be a good promotion for [Merkel's hometown of] Templin, but in fact nobody here wants her to become chancellor," said Templin Mayor Ulrich Sch?neich, noting that Merkel had become too western for the likes of the town and didn't seem to speak for ossies, or easterners. "Everyone's hoping something will happen in Templin, but nothing will."