German opposition fights on beaches: The SPD leader is telling holidaymakers he is the best man to replace Chancellor Kohl, writes Steve Crawshaw in Norderney

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'LET'S talk to each other. Rudolf Scharping on the road in Germany,' say the posters, dotted around the island of Norderney - one little town and some windswept sandy beaches, just off the coast of north-west Germany.

The East Friesian island is famous for its windsurfing and for its smuggling traditions (many islanders still wear the traditional gold ear-ring, shaped with their initials - for identifying sailors' bodies when they were fished out of the sea).

But Rudolf Scharping, leader of the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and would-be German chancellor, is not here for the windsurfing, nor for the smugglers. In a sense, he is not even here because of the 6,000 permanent inhabitants of Norderney.

Rather, it is the outsiders who have brought him here, to 'The Queen of the North Sea', as the island likes to describe itself. Norderney is Germany's oldest official resort (a royal decree dates back to 1797), and now receives 200,000 visitors a year. It is, in short, a suitable place to sound the electoral drum.

This is one of the last stops on a tour of summer resorts by Mr Scharping. He wants to persuade holidaying voters that enough is enough, and that, after 12 years in power, Chancellor Helmut Kohl must be shown the door. In the words of another SPD poster: 'Germany, look forward to the change.'

The long hot summer has given way to wind and rain, so the planned outdoor question-and- answer session is being held inside the main assembly hall, which is packed. There are questions from the floor about the SPD's tax plans - many fear they could be forced to pay more tax, an issue that exploded with dangerous force, earlier this year (Mr Scharping insists that 80 per cent would be better off, and only 20 per cent would have to pay more under the proposed new system).

There are worries, too, about the SPD readiness to do deals with the post-Communist PDS. A minority coalition government was recently formed in the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt, which was made possible only because of the PDS. Despite all his denials, Mr Schar ping has had difficulty in shaking off the idea the SPD might form a coalition with the PDS in Bonn, too, after the elections in October.

But perhaps the greatest problem for the SPD is the simple question of credibility. Some doubt that Mr Scharping has the strength to push change through. More importantly, few voters now believe that the SPD can win on 16 October. One man found Mr Scharping 'more to the point than I expected', and was inclined to vote for him. But he quickly added: 'I still don't know if he can do what he promises. And I don't think he'll get in.'

Ask even loyal SPD supporters whether they believe in an SPD victory, and there is a long pause, followed by a sceptical sigh. Werner Kramer, 56, a car factory worker holidaying on Norderney, says: 'Kohl is better at lying.'

The final phase of the election campaign gets under way next week, with a special launch meeting in the industrial town of Dortmund. Mr Scharping hopes for a turnaround in the mood, in the next few weeks. But even Mr Scharping and his allies admit that he now has an uphill battle.

Mr Kohl, who was way behind in the polls at the beginning of this year, now has a clear lead. The latest polls suggest that the Christian Democrats and their allies, are around 5 percentage points ahead of the Social Democrats and their potential coalition allies, the Greens. Gerhard Schroder, the Social Democrat prime minister in the state of Lower Saxony (of which Norderney forms a part), insists that all is not lost, and quotes one of Mr Kohl's own sayings: 'Whoever wins the opinion polls, loses the election.'

From the Social Democrats' point of view, the problem is that the signs that the recession has bottomed out have taken the immediate pressure off Mr Kohl. On Norderney and elsewhere, there is little passionate opposition to Mr Scharping. But he appears not to have convinced the majority of the urgent need for change.

In the next few weeks, Mr Scharping has a daunting number of voters to persuade - not just that things have gone wrong,

but that he is the man to put

them right.