Gonzalez goes out on the road: Spanish leader throws his passion and charisma into the bullring

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The Independent Online
WITH THE election campaign proper still almost two weeks away, Felipe Gonzalez could not explicitly ask people to vote for him. So he simply suggested they 'decide freely on 6 June (election day) like mature citizens'. Bused in by Spain's ruling Socialist Party from the rest of the northern region of Cantabria, the 7,000 faithful in Santander's picturesque, 100- year-old bullring yesterday left no doubt of their allegiance.

'Thank you for letting me represent Spain in the world with pride. With pride,' the Prime Minister yelled, before throwing red roses - his party's symbol - into the ring while several women replied with blown kisses. That was the cue for a pounding bass line from a bank of loudspeakers that flanked the Prime Minister, which filled the Plaza de Toros with the taped strains of his Socialist Party's theme tune.

Not since his first victorious campaign in 1982 has Mr Gonzalez been forced to stomp the country before the legally permitted two-week campaign even starts. His leading opponent, Jose Maria Aznar, of the conservative Popular Party (PP), is doing the same. Overtaken, fractionally, in the opinion polls for the first time since 1982, Mr Gonzalez is hitting the pre-campaign trail to cash in on something Mr Aznar lacks - charisma.

Judging by the two protagonists' mutual daily diatribes, it will be the roughest, probably the dirtiest, election campaign of Spain's modern history. Mr Aznar was a mere 'robot, doing what his advisers tell him', said Mr Gonzalez in a speech on Friday night. The Prime Minister was 'talking through a hole in his head', Mr Aznar responded on Saturday.

'Could you imagine Aznar deciding what to do about the former Yugoslavia?' Mr Gonzalez taunted here yesterday. 'Do you notice on television how he always pulls out a little piece of paper to remind him what to talk about next? 'Oh, yes, the environment'.'

More than a taunt, it was a telling remark. As always, Mr Gonzalez talked passionately, without a moment's hesitation, often citing figures without notes or a prompter, in this case for 45 minutes. At one point, he had to apologise to the deaf- mute interpreter for talking too fast. 'Europe is our future, not only our present,' he said, emphasising one of his party's four main campaign planks: 'Creating jobs, modernisation, a new democratic impulse and a Spain that is definitively European.'

Mr Gonzalez was in a real sense returning to his 'fatherland' - his father was born in a Cantabrian village near here but moved south to Andalusia, where Felipe was born - and he waved to 'Aunt Maria' seated on a chair in the bullring sand.

But Cantabrians have tended to remain loyal to their traditions, rather than to a one-generation-removed 'native son', and both the 'autonomous community' of Cantabria and the city of Santander are controlled by conservatives.

Mr Gonzalez attacked the PP's marketing campaign, saying the party was trying to sell Mr Aznar like 'some kind of soap'. He might have been wise to steer clear of that allusion. When Mr Gonzalez enlisted the country's best-known young judge, Baltasar Garzon, last month to run for the Socialists in Madrid, there was little doubt it was a marketing manoeuvre to improve the party's image. The conservatives said Mr Garzon had been taken on as a 'detergent'. 'Garzon washes whiter,' mocked one columnist.

If the Socialists win, the handsome Mr Garzon's role is likely to be much more. Mr Gonzalez has confided to close friends that he may step down during the next legislature. It is a good bet that Mr Garzon is being groomed as the 'new face' of socialism in Spain, a face that is much more centrist, and often straying to the right.

Apparently convinced his own party's left would cost him the election, Mr Gonzalez last month marginalised the left- wing faction and grabbed control of the campaign himself for the first time.

Last week, he promised a 'quite new team' in government if he wins. Unusually, in a speech by a Socialist, he praised King Juan Carlos, a clear message to undecided voters that the party is not anti-royalist. He also called on the country's senior Archbishop for the first time in four years, sending a similar message to undecided Catholics.