| Two girls walk in front of a German election campaign poster showing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (right) and his conservative challenger Edmund Stoiber in Berlin. (Reuters)
Berlin, Aug. 24 (Reuters): German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his challenger Edmund Stoiber put their election campaigns on hold today to prepare for their historic television debate tomorrow evening.
The first ever televised debate in Germany is expected to be watched by millions of undecided voters and analysts say the showdown between the telegenic incumbent and his dour Bavarian rival may have a crucial impact on the September 22 election.
While debates have long been part of US elections, German leaders ruled out giving challengers the chance to raise their profiles. Schroeder agreed because he was behind in surveys then and because of his supreme confidence in his debating abilities.
Schroeder’s Social Democrats trailed Stoiber’s conservatives all year in voter surveys by about five percentage points but erased most of the gap in recent polls thanks to his steady-handed leadership this month after floods that killed 20 and caused billions of euros (dollars) in damage battered the country.
The first of two TV debates pits the Bavarian state premier, a master of facts and figures, against smooth-talking Schroeder, whose legendary on-camera charm played a pivotal role in helping him oust Chancellor Helmut Kohl four years ago.
But Stoiber, 60, holds one important edge over Schroeder: The white-haired Bavarian is 13 cm taller than the 58-year-old chancellor, and his advisers boxed through a demand that the two face off standing rather than seated. “The importance of these debates will not be the same as in America,” Schroeder told Cologne’s Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper.
“No one can seriously make a judgment on whether someone is qualified to be chancellor based on a few witty remarks.”
Some political analysts are nevertheless billing the battle as the highlight of the campaign.
Both Schroeder and Stoiber cancelled campaign appearances at the weekend to prepare for Sunday's prime time bout. They studied papers at home, took part in practice sparring, and rested to avoid any appearance of fatigue on camera.
“It is not a question of who is the better actor,” Stoiber told Welt am Sonntag newspaper. “At the end of the day, people are judged on the work they’ve done. And if you fail to cut unemployment, it doesn’t matter how good an actor you are.”
Stoiber, who recently acquired a solarium to keep his face tanned because it makes him appear better on television, was being tutored at his home near Munich by his media adviser Michael Spreng, former editor of Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
“Herr Stoiber has no appointments this weekend and is preparing at home for the television duel,” said Carola Krause, spokeswoman for the Christian Social Union.
“He’s also resting.” In the biggest single-week swing recorded in years by the leading Electoral Research Group pollsters, Schroeder's party jumped two points to 38 percent in the survey published today while the conservatives fell two to 39 per cent.