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German Challenger Makes a Sharp Left to Woo Voters

July 06, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MUNICH, Germany — Bavarian Gov. Edmund Stoiber has adopted an unconventional strategy in his neck-and-neck race with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for the German leadership: He's abandoning what his conservative constituents consider the moral high ground.

Mindful of his lack of popularity among female voters and those from the east, Stoiber has chosen an unwed mother from Brandenburg, a state that was part of the old Communist East Germany, to advise him on family and social affairs ahead of the Sept. 22 election. She is likely to join Stoiber's Cabinet if he is elected.

To the outrage of his largely Roman Catholic and conservative constituents, Stoiber has struck a pose of tolerance and inclusion. Most of the critics have been rendered speechless.

"I stand for a modern and open policy on women, youth and families that proceeds from clear fundamental values and keeps in sight the reality of life in our country," the 60-year-old candidate said at a news conference to introduce Katherina Reiche, a 28-year-old single mother due to deliver her second child in late August.

The invitation extended to Reiche this week provides Stoiber a chance to gain some votes at the expense of Schroeder's Social Democrats. Until Reiche's appointment, Stoiber's shadow Cabinet was composed exclusively of men from western Germany, most, like himself, nearing retirement age.

During the campaign for chancellor four years ago, Stoiber's Christian Social Union in the southeastern state of Bavaria and its Christian Democratic allies in Germany's other 15 states cast Schroeder as a man of dubious morals after he married for the fourth time--to a single mother 20 years his junior.

Then-Chancellor and candidate of the Christian Democratic Union Helmut Kohl came off as the champion of family values. His wife, Hannelore, was by his side as a constant reminder to voters of the contrast. However, having failed to profit from the faith-and-fidelity platform, the conservatives appear to have decided to err on the side of inclusion this time.

Whether the conservatives' traditional constituency will follow is an open question, and one that makes the move a political risk for Stoiber. Although he silenced the initial uproar over Reiche's appointment with a steely precaution to party members that the choice of advisors was his to make, grumbling is still to be heard. In an editorial Thursday, the influential Sueddeutsche Zeitung warned that the conservatives were "out on thin ice."

"If the CDU/CSU were a publicly traded company, stock analysts would be talking about this as an assault on shareholder value," the newspaper commented, adding that Stoiber was overstepping the moral boundaries that have long defined his supporters.

"I cannot see how such a questionable position can be reconciled with a competent family policy in the Christian model," said a prominent antiabortion Christian Democrat, Johanna von Westphalen.

Besides choosing to live with but not marry the father of her 3-year-old daughter and unborn child, Reiche, an elder care specialist from Potsdam, is an outspoken advocate of embryonic stem cell research, in stark contrast to the prevailing views of her party.

Confident and unapologetic, she told journalists in Berlin on Wednesday that she would probably marry her partner someday--but that the when, where and why of the matter were no one else's business.

She also expressed interest in taking on the Cabinet post of minister for women, youth, families and seniors if Stoiber should defeat Schroeder in September.

Although the Catholic Church, which is influential in Bavaria, has made its disapproval of Reiche apparent, the conservatives are probably banking on their rural and religious supporters' having little alternative but to vote for Stoiber.

Recent polls indicate that the conservatives have a modest lead over Schroeder's Social Democrats, but the incumbent still beats Stoiber in any one-on-one contest.

"If Stoiber wants to win, he has to be the candidate in the political middle that everyone can vote for," said Gerhard Merk of the local Abendzeitung newspaper. "Bavaria is a very conservative and religious state, but who else are the Catholics going to vote for?"

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