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Germany's Schroeder and Challenger Edmund Stoiber Debate Economy, Iraq - 2002-08-26

An American-style debate Sunday between the two main candidates to lead Germany saw them battle over the economy and policy toward Iraq. But neither Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder nor his conservative challenger Edmund Stoiber won a clear advantage.

It was the first live one-on-one debate between an incumbent chancellor and his main opponent.

About 15 million viewers tuned into the duel, but most in the German media seemed to agree that neither candidate had landed a decisive punch.

Analysts are saying the debate was too inconclusive to determine who will win the election on September 22 because Germans vote for parties rather than personalities. Even though Chancellor Schroeder is personally more popular than Mr. Stoiber, the Social Democrats are running slightly behind the conservatives in the polls.

But the Social Democrats have been closing the gap since Mr. Schroeder was credited with bold management of the flood disaster that devastated large parts of eastern Germany.

Although the chancellor touted the way he took charge of relief efforts, Mr. Stoiber tried to get the debate focused on what he called Germany's most pressing problem, high unemployment.

"We have a flood catastrophe, but we also have another catastrophe. That is, the exceptionally high unemployment, over four million during the summer. We are on the bottom of European economic growth. And we do not decrease unemployment," said Mr. Stoiber.

Mr. Schroeder, who has been promising for some time that he would reduce unemployment to 3.5 million, said it is not his fault that the jobless rate is so high.

"I am the last one who is not disappointed about us not reducing unemployment to 3.5 million. But the reasons for that are in the world economy, not homemade," said the chancellor.

The two candidates also squared off on Iraq. Chancellor Schroeder, mindful of polls showing that most Germans oppose a war against Iraq, said that if he is re-elected, Germany would take no part in any military action against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"A military action is wrong, given the current situation in the Middle East, the unfinished reconstruction of Afghanistan, and the continual fight against the Taleban," said Mr. Schroeder. "Therefore, it will not be done with Germany."

But Mr. Stoiber said it is too early to rule out military action against Iraq. "When, without pressure, the chancellor rules out theoretical options, then one takes the pressure off Saddam Hussein to give in to the United Nations," he said.

It remains unclear how the debate will sway voters. Two polls conducted by telephone among viewers gave Mr. Schroeder an overall edge, while a third favored Mr. Stoiber.

But all surveys agreed that the challenger fared better than voters had expected against an incumbent widely seen as a more polished campaigner. Two-thirds of those polled say the debate will not influence the way they will vote.