Schröder still closing the gap as campaign enters final round - but will it be enough?

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The Independent Online

A rejuvenated Gerhard Schröder has swung into the last week of Germany's election campaign pledging that any government he heads will preserve Germany's "social solidarity for our children, and their children, and their children".

Clearly buoyed by his party's last-minute surge, he told a crowd of tens of thousands in Münster last night that only his party would "renew" Germany as a "social" state in which everyone looked out for everyone else.

And this master of political campaigning lost no time in presenting voters with the alternative: "You have all seen the television pictures from America. That impresses on us all the more that we need to address the need and wretch-edness of others. Solidarity is not only about thinking, but acting ... Anything else would be an assault on our way of life."

The human and environmental disaster that followed Hurricane Katrina has given Mr Schröder and his Social Democratic Party an unexpected bonus ­ but one that only a politician as bold, as strategically and perhaps as desperate as Mr Schröder would venture to exploit. Last night he used it to highlight the inadequacies of the American free-market model, the reality of climate change and ­ time and again ­ the imperative of social solidarity, against an opponent he accused of wanting to tax "the millionaire at the same rate as his cleaning lady".

In Münster everything seemed to be coming right for Mr Schröder. The huge screen behind him was emblazoned with the German flag and the words: " Trust in Germany" ­ a slogan which carries the same double meaning as in English. The sun came out in time to bathe the cathedral square in its setting glow. The throng waved giant red and white banners; the many young people in the crowd roared their support.

There was a sense in which this mass rally in a cathedral and university city which celebrated the 1200th anniversary of its first bishop earlier this year, brought Mr Schröder's campaign full circle. The defeat inflicted on the SDP in regional elections here in North-Rhine Westphalia in May is the reason why Germany will be voting in a general election on Sunday. Whether in a fit of pique at the loss, or because after a series of regional election defeats he genuinely felt in need of a new mandate, Mr Schröder reacted by calling an election.

It was not until three months later, in August, after a confidence vote in the Bundestag, the consent of the German President, and a challenge in the constitutional court, that the campaign began in earnest. It has been short, sharp and fiercely contested, and promises to become even more so in this last week.

Of all the twists and turns of this campaign, however, the late surge by the SPD was never part of the script. When Mr Schröder began his campaign in earnest two weeks ago, few gave his party the slightest chance of returning to power in any form, even as the junior partner in a coalition. Ms Merkel and her centre-right CDU/CSU alliance had recovered from a series of false starts over the summer and had opened up a double-digit lead in the polls.

All the bad luck had fallen on the Chancellor's side. He seemed almost fated to lose. Three years before he had capitalised on severe floods in Dresden and the eastern parts of the country; he had been first on with his wellies, and first to offer large amounts of state aid. This year there were floods, too, but as was cynically remarked in the newspapers, they were "not bad enough" ­ that was before Katrina.

Mr Schröder's run of bad luck continued when his party chairman, Franz Müntefering, fainted at an election rally he was addressing and then one of the SPD's most respected elder statesman died. Meanwhile Ms Merkel's slogans ­ variations on the theme that notoriously cautious Germany was " ready for change", seemed to have struck a chord.

Now, after two weeks of cross-country campaigning, those voters seem not to be so sure. And Mr Schröder has played on their fears with his own risk-taking brand of opportunism. Last night, for almost the first time since he called the election, Mr Schröder felt he had the luxury of not only attacking Ms Merkel's policies and her vision for Germany, but of defending his record. Unemployment of young people especially has started to fall, poverty has declined, necessary reform of the "social state" has begun ­ in a way that will preserve its benefits for succeeding generations.

Floods have a way of coming good for Gerhard Schröder, floods in Germany and floods abroad.