The phoney war is over in fight for German leadership

THE CHALLENGER was so looking forward to this meeting. The choreography of the handshake with Russia's President had been refined to the tiniest detail, the arc lights carefully targeted on those famous white teeth, and the trademark smile practised a hundred times. Only one thing was wrong: the cameras were missing.

So it came to pass that Gerhard Schroder, upon whose telegenic grin the hopes of German Social Democrats rest in the coming elections, held a long discussion with Boris Yeltsin in Bonn last week, but the encounter failed to make the news.

Don't blame television. The night before the meeting, the German station WDR received a telephone call from the government guest house, informing them that previous arrangements were off. They were free to film President Yeltsin in the company of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, but not with the man most likely to become chancellor after September's election.

Poor Mr Schroder is not very fortunate. Criticised as "nothing but a nice tie" by government politicians, he is desperate for some display of statesman-like gravitas, but just cannot seem to get this message out to the German voters.

Last month, for example, he had trudged all the way to Berlin to cavort with Bill Clinton, only to have his face erased from the television screens.

The circumstances were similar. Television crews turned up for the meeting, but were barred by German officials. On both occasions, the foreign guests had allegedly changed their minds about the arrangements.

Not without some persuasion, one assumes. Chancellor Kohl had actively endorsed both presidents in their election campaigns, and now he was calling in his chips. With his own moment of reckoning approaching quickly, Mr Kohl's Christian Democrats continue to trail six points behind Mr Schroder's Social Democrats. In the personal popularity stakes, the challenger, 14 years younger than the incumbent, is a lap ahead.

These are indeed desperate times for the longest reigning democratic leader in the world, and desperate measures are being sought. After the phoney war of the past few months, marked by nothing more intrusive than the dissection of the opponent's policies, the Kohl camp has suddenly changed tack.

The mild-mannered career politicians running the campaign have been swept aside, the government spokesman replaced by a thick-skinned party propagandist, and responsibility for strategy handed to a hard-boiled tabloid journalist.

The "Chancellor's territorial army", as the new masterminds have been dubbed, take no prisoners. Hans-Martin Tiedje, former editor of the tabloid Bild Zeitung, is believed to be behind the increasingly shrill tone emanating from Christian Democrat headquarters.

No longer are September's elections seen as a contest about jobs, tax reforms and other yawn-provoking issues. At stake is the very future of German democracy.

A vote for Mr Schroder - runs the argument - is a vote for the crypto- Communists of the east, the Party of Democratic Socialism. And in case the red scare did not work, Otto Hauser, the new government spokesman, has likened the PDS to the Nazis.

Mr Schroder has no intention of cutting any deal with the PDS, but his party did go to bed with the reds recently in the eastern Land of Saxony- Anhalt.

Mud sticks, just as it did four years ago, when a similar "red socks" campaign helped Chancellor Kohl to capture a fourth term in office.

A repeat performance will require more, however. Mr Schroder is better suited to modern political warfare than any of the previous contestants, while Mr Kohl is getting too old to play Rambo. If the battle is to be fought with soundbites, smiles and innuendo, the challenger's chances might even improve.

The contest could still become brutally personal in true tabloid style, such as it has never been in Germany before.

At the Christian Democrat conference in Bremen, they were handing out T-shirts with the logo: "Schroder is the wrong man - three women cannot be wrong". Mr Schroder's policies are still somewhat hazy, but every German knows that the flash challenger is now on his fourth wife. And dependability is one of the most exalted German virtues.