After 16 years, Chancellor Kohl's days may finally be numbered. But what exactly will Germans be getting if Gerhard Schroder wins next week's election?
IN THE lobby of a hi-tech cinema in Hamburg, the young visitors stand in line for the hottest virtual game in Germany. "We've had 14,000 hits in two weeks," boasts its creator. As his fingers punch the key-board, new vistas open up on the overhead screen. Without giving too much of the "Youth for Schroder" website away, after numerous left-turns, the surfer reaches the promised land: a country run by Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. Anyone who makes it to the goal gets a free trip to Berlin.

Inside the auditorium, a comedian is warming up the audience with jokes about Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and also a few at the expense of his challenger. "Since Monica Lewinsky, no cigar-smoking politician is safe," he warns Mr Schroder, a noted connoisseur of bulky Havanas. Especially if the man in question has a reputation for - how can one put this? - many divorces. Mr Schro- der is currently married to his fourth wife.

When the laughs die down, the politicians enter at last, to the sound of fanfares, the spotlights dancing on their faces, and the celebrity guest pumping the air with his double-handed victory salute.

The spin-doctors ease themselves into seats in the back row with visible contentment. This venue has "on-message" written all over it. The youth are here from the schools of Hamburg, everybody is having fun, and there is plenty of technology to remind the voters what Gerhard Schroder is meant to be about: the future.

With so little separating the policies of the rival camps in the run- up to the German elections next week, impressions rather than issues are what count, and the most significant difference between the two protagonists is their age. Thus, at the end of a six-month campaign, the two leading personalities have unwittingly ended up parodying themselves.

Chancellor Kohl, 16 years in the job, stands on his record. He talks of almost nothing but his achievements, credits himself with bringing stability in Germany, and plays on people's fears of the unknown. His campaign appearances are a lengthy history lesson, featuring the "war- or-peace" theme - European integration or mayhem - and a blow-by-blow account of German reunification.

MR SCHRODER, a provincial politician who is only now taking his first unsteady steps on the world stage, must escape into the future, so he harps on about the new millennium. The two protagonists will never clash in a television debate, because the Chancellor is not interested in descending to Mr Schroder's level. But commentators say a duel would not have worked in any case, because the two men are simply not operating in the same time frame.

What Germans are left with is a virtual election campaign. The immediate issues facing voters next Sunday have barely been discussed, and some have been completely obliterated. There is hardly a mention, for instance, of European monetary union, which in the lifetime of the next parliament will supplant the beloved deutschmark.

Yet everybody is aware of the huge challenges facing Germany, even if no politician dares to address them openly, for fear of losing a few votes on the margins. Unemployment, at over four million, is the biggest task. The German model clearly needs adjusting, but how thorough an overhaul it should receive is only being hinted at. Both the governing Christian Democrats and Mr Schroder's Social Democrats are promising tax windfalls. Mr Schroder is offering a little more intervention than the present government in the labour market. And each side wants to reform pensions.

There is, though, as the country senses, a great deal more at stake than the odd cut or increase on VAT, and the magnitude of child benefits. Germany is about to witness, if Mr Schroder wins, a fundamental change of generations. Out will go the makers of the economic miracle, the people who brought you the dream of federal Europe, and in will come a set of people who believe their country to be as normal as any other.

The age gap between the 68-year-old Kohl and the 54-year-old Schroder may not seem that great, but the two men are worlds apart. Mr Kohl's formative years were spent in the Hitler youth and then among the rubble of his home town, Ludwigshafen. The son of a low-grade civil servant, he witnessed Germany's collapse and participated in its re-birth. He worked all his life to redeem the past and create the "stability" that would keep Germans from fighting wars.

Mr Schroder has a different history, and is driven by other ambitions. He was born into poverty, in October 1944. His father, a labourer in civilian life, fell on the eastern front three days after his son's birth. Mrs Schroder married again, but her new husband suffered from tuberculosis and she had to fend for the five children alone. She cleaned the barracks of the British occupation forces in the northern town of Lemgo for a living.

AT THE age of 12, young Gerhard had to work in the fields to supplement the family income, and was forced to leave school early to help keep the bailiffs away by working as an apprentice salesman at a china shop. This period of his life, and his efforts to educate himself at evening classes, frequently get a mention in his speeches.

After finishing high school at his own expense, Mr Schroder obtained a law degree at Gottingen University and went on to become a lawyer. These were heady days. Mr Schroder professed himself to be a "Marxist" as he plunged into the maelstrom of leftist politics. He rose to become president of the Social Democrat Party's youth wing, the "Young Socialists".

But dogma always interested him less than power. By the time he reached Bonn as an MP in 1980, and stood outside the chancellery, shaking the gate and shouting "I want to get in there", he had already lost much of his leftist ardour. And when, 10 years later, he was elected Prime Minister of his native Lower Saxony, the former firebrand was oozing pragmatism.

Mr Schroder's administrative record is patchy. After his eight years at the helm, Lower Saxony is more heavily in debt than most other Lander, yet has a higher than average level of unemployment. Nevertheless, he keeps being re-elected. The voters seem to like the way he oils the wheels of business, lobbies for investment, and intervenes occasionally with public funds to save an enterprise from going under or from being bought by foreigners. At the same time, he cuts deals with the unions and tries to keep wage bills low.

That, at least, was the Gerhard Schroder everybody knew: the "bosses' comrade" who fitted ill into the more traditional mainstream of the Social Democrat Party. But the views that outraged the left for so long have not been in evidence on the stumps in the last few months. Mr Schroder is clearly playing it safe.

But here, in the reassuring company of youth, Mr Schroder drops the mask for 20 minutes as he answers questions from the audience. The Hamburg kids catch a glimpse of the man who portrays himself as Germany's answer to Tony Blair. He talks about the "stakeholder society", he says he wants the welfare safety net to be a "trampoline" to bounce the unemployed back into jobs. He wants "lateral thinkers" in his government, and supports two of his aides who are under attack for challenging orthodoxy, in the party and the country as a whole.

And finally, as he addresses the need for "structural change", an old favourite absent for so long makes an appearance: "I think the Dutch model of job creation can and must function in Germany." The Dutch model prescribes lower wages, part-time work, and the unemployed being kicked off the dole. You don't hear Mr Schroder talk like this in front of of middle-aged workers.

That is possibly why Middle Germany is confused, and Mr Schroder's once impregnable lead is eroding. But Hamburg's young cinema-goers have no doubt. "Things cannot go on like this, with four million unemployed," says 18-year-old Anna Timmermann. "Kohl is incapable of change, we need a new beginning."