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Merkel's tired homecoming shows cracks in campaign

The handsome Old Market Square of this small Baltic port was barely two-thirds full for Ms Merkel. It was not the boost that the CDU leader needed as members of her own party publicly questioned her support of Paul Kirchhof, an advocate of a 25 per cent flat tax whom the SPD has demonised as a neo-conservative radical.

If the CDU and their mooted partners, the liberal FDP fail to win a majority, Merkel's party could be forced into an alliance with Gerhard Schröder's SPD, a move which could kill the economic reforms that have been the centrepiece of her campaign.

Her promises to tackle Germany's record unemployment - the main theme of her speech and the biggest social problem in the former east Germany - drew only patchy applause last night, perhaps because as the local MP, she was deemed not to have done enough. Some hinted afterwards that she might have sacrificed local interests to her national ambitions.

However, she looked anything but an ambitious politician yesterday. She tried a walkabout in the cobbled streets, but seemed listless, uncommunicative and extremely tired. Once at the podium, she tried lambasting Schröder over unemployment, but sounded as if she was reading a lecture on economics.

The crowd, even in this relatively prosperous town, looked like a gathering of those left behind in the emptying area that was East Germany: young couples with children, elderly people and many half-drunk and bestudded youths.

But, of course, this rally was less about meeting the people in Stralsund than it was about television airtime. The backdrop, the filigree façade of Stralsund's distinctive Gothic town hall, and the colourful medieval market square were picture postcard Germany. For television viewers, this was "Angela coming home". In fact, there seemed little gratitude, or even warmth, on either side.

Ominously, the only times the crowd came alive was when she touched on foreign workers, saying "those who do not accept our constitution have no right to be here and will have to leave", and when she ruled out Turkish membership of the EU. A small group of youths who had barracked hoarsely up until that point, enthusiastically waved the red and black placards of the far-right NPD.

For the best part of an hour, Ms Merkel tried to rescue some of the policies savaged by Mr Schröder and his SPD campaigners over the past week.But to be addressing misinterpretations of her policies at this stage of the campaign does not bode well for Ms Merkel and her centre-right CDU/CSU alliance.

Three years ago, at an infinitely more modest Stralsund rally, Ms Merkel still spoke as an intellectual, rather than a campaigner, but she came across as energetic and optimistic, with a bright future before her. Then, the home crowd was curious and engaged. Three years on, Stralsund seems conspicuously more prosperous. There just seems less hope around.