Kohl reduces rival's lead

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WITH A WEEK to go, Gerhard Schroder's lead over Helmut Kohl in the German election race dropped yesterday to the narrowest yet, and his advantage over the Chancellor in personal popularity is also shrinking.

According to a poll conducted last week by the Electoral Research group, Mr Schroder's Social Democrats have dropped below 40 per cent for the first time since he was selected as the candidate for chancellor earlier this year. The Social Democrats are now just two points ahead.

Mr Schroder may be experiencing the beginnings of disenchantment. Previously undecided voters seem to be heading back to the Kohl camp, driven by confusion over the challenger's platform. Though Mr Schroder is still clearly the more popular of the two, that gap is also closing.

Never the less, by saying almost nothing, Mr Schroder has avoided the banana skins littering his opponents' path. A gaffe by Claudia Nolte, Mr Kohl's family minister, has been been seized upon by the Social Democrats as evidence of duplicity. Ms Nolte had let it slip that raising VAT might not be as bad an idea as her party colleagues maintain.

She was severely reprimanded by the Chancellor but the incident left lasting damage, inviting opposition charges that Mr Kohl was preparing a "tax lie". The government has committed not to raise taxes, but it accuses the Social Democrats of harbouring such ideas.

To deflect attention from that outcry, Mr Kohl promised to tighten a recently passed law authorising the electronic surveillance of suspected criminals. But the Chancellor had omitted to consult his junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats, who refuse to sanction further restrictions on civil liberties.