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Schroder victory leaves Kohl smarting

RATTLED by his party's heavy defeat in Sunday's Lower Saxony elections, Chancellor Helmut Kohl angrily rejected suggestions yesterday that he should abandon his attempt to gain a fifth term of office.

"I am it," he curtly replied, when asked if the Christian Democrats had a candidate strong enough to take on the opposition's newly-acclaimed champion, Gerhard Schroder. Mr Schroder was officially endorsed by the leadership of the Social Democrats yesterday after scoring the party's biggest victory in his region.

With 48 per cent of the votes, up nearly 4 per cent, the SPD secured an absolute majority in the Hanover assembly. The results of the Christian Democrats, with just under 36 per cent, were virtually unchanged. "This is a very disappointing election result for us," Chancellor Kohl conceded.

He had made 11 campaign appearances in Lower Saxony, in the forlorn hope of spiking Mr Schroder's attempt at securing the SPD nomination.

The strategy clearly backfired. "Because he turned it into a primary, Helmut Kohl determined the outcome of this election," Mr Schroder said.

The rematch will take place on 27 September, when Chancellor Kohl faces the voters' scrutiny in elections to the Bundestag. His challenger, Mr Schroder, is lean, 14 years younger and enjoys a popularity rating twice as high as Mr Kohl's. The SPD are about 6 per cent ahead of the Christian Democrats.

The omens are not good for the incumbent. "Kohl must come up with something," said Ingo Friedrich, deputy chairman of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister of the Chancellor's party.

But other leaders of the Christian bloc closed ranks, arguing that it would be suicidal to ditch Mr Kohl at so late a stage. No senior figure in the party is expected to make an open challenge, but continued talk of Mr Kohl's vulnerability against an opponent he failed to anticipate will not help his cause.

Mr Schroder, meanwhile, was busy setting out his store in Bonn yesterday. True to form, he dropped one small bombshell on the first day in his new role, warning the Greens not to count on a place in government, should he win. His antipathy to the Greens is legendary. But, as he admitted, the SPD cannot expect to win enough votes in September to govern alone.

In Lower Saxony, Mr Schroder took votes off every party, a feat he will hope to repeat on the national stage. He pledged to fight for the middle ground in politics, the same spot currently occupied by the Christian Democrats. "We're talking about a political programme which embraces both business and social responsibility," he declared after his triumph. "It has to be anchored in the centre."

While he battles in the "new middle", the left flank will be defended by Oskar Lafontaine, the SPD's party chairman, who gave up his ambition to run against Mr Kohl after being confronted with the magnitude of Mr Schroder's victory. Time will tell whether this combination will prove to be a dream ticket or, from the SPD's point of view, the stuff of nightmares.