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German candidates face off in TV debate
(AP)
Updated: 2005-09-05 09:14

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder reminded Germans of his opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq and his challenger Angela Merkel focused on unemployment, as the two squared off Sunday in a key televised debate two weeks ahead of elections, AP reported.

The 90-minute debate, broadcast live during prime time, offered the beleaguered Schroeder an opportunity to showcase his strong television skills as polls give Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats a double-digit advantage over his Social Democrats.

Polls found that the media-savvy Schroeder performed better ! an outcome that had been widely predicted.

The handout video grab from RTL television shows German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (R) and Christian Democratic opposition leader Angela Merkel shaking hands at the end of their debate in a television studio outside Berlin September 4, 2005. REUTERS
The handout video grab from RTL television shows German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (R) and Christian Democratic opposition leader Angela Merkel shaking hands at the end of their debate in a television studio outside Berlin September 4, 2005.[Reuters]
The chancellor started off with a defense of his welfare-state and labor-market reforms, and also sought to score points with his popular opposition to the Iraq war.

"I am asking for confidence in the policies that I have carried out, policies aimed at readjusting the social security systems that were neglected in the 90s" under a previous conservative government, Schroeder said. "We are the ones who tackled the structural problems."

He also claimed credit for "a foreign policy that has positioned Germany abroad as a middle-sized power for peace ! which contributed, and I had to take some criticism for that, to keeping Germany out of the Iraq war, for example."

The handout video grab from RTL television shows German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (R) and Christian Democratic opposition leader Angela Merkel as they debate in a television studio outside Berlin September 4, 2005.
The handout video grab from RTL television shows German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (R) and Christian Democratic opposition leader Angela Merkel as they debate in a television studio outside Berlin September 4, 2005. [Reuters]
Merkel shot back with a barb at Schroeder's struggles over the past two years to overcome resistance within his Social Democrats to his limited reform drive, which she proposes extending.

"Germany can only be a strong, reliable partner in the world if we are also economically strong, and that is where we are lacking ! and, unlike the chancellor, I can be sure with my party colleagues that we will support this course of modernization together," she said.

"We must do everything to say: priority for jobs," Merkel said.

Merkel has centered her campaign firmly on the German economy's stagnation and the country's persistently high unemployment rate ! currently 11.4 percent.

She underscored during Sunday's debate her opposition to Turkish membership of the EU, arguing that "the EU does not have the capacity of integration to take in Turkey as a full member." Merkel proposes offering Turkey a "privileged partnership" instead.

"It would be entirely irresponsible now to awake in Turkey expectations of full membership ... and then be unable to implement that," she said.

Schroeder accused her of making "a major foreign policy mistake."

"You do not understand what geostrategic, what geopolitical significance linking Turkey to the EU has," he said.

A poll of 1,276 people carried out for ARD television after the debate found that 49 percent believed Schroeder fared better overall, against 33 percent for Merkel. The channel cautioned that the result was in line with expectations and could not be translated into votes. Surveys by two other polling institutes also put Schroeder ahead.

Although Merkel's party is well ahead in support, it is less clear whether it and the pro-business Free Democrats will muster enough votes to form her preferred coalition. If they fall short, Merkel could be forced into a so-called "grand coalition" with Schroeder's party.

Experts argue that Sunday's debate ! the only one-on-one encounter of the campaign ! could help determine what coalition emerges from the election.

Ahead of the debate, Schroeder was heavily favored to emerge the better from the encounter. However, Merkel, whose campaign style has often been restrained, argued as aggressively as the chancellor in the early exchanges.



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