* Social Democrat candidate trails Merkel in polls
* Former finance minister famous for speaking his mind
* Campaign targets "living rooms" to mobilise support
By Stephen Brown
BERLIN, April 10 Coaxed into a tub of plastic
bubbles with a 19-year-old drama student, the German
centre-left's candidate for chancellor Peer Steinbrueck shows a
sense of humour that his rival Angela Merkel would struggle to
But his performance taking questions from nine teenagers
dressed in space suits at the Berlin campaign event also gave
clues as to why the Social Democrat (SPD) is so far behind
Merkel less than six months before parliamentary elections.
Steinbrueck told the students at a Berlin theatre that he
likes red wine, Tolstoy novels and Lou Reed's 1972 rock hit
"Walk on the Wild Side" - but revealed little else besides a
"I don't know if I'd vote for him," said 16-year-old Timothy
Stachelhaus. "I need to know more about what he stands for."
Germany shows no sign of tiring of Chancellor Merkel after
her nearly eight years in office. Roughly two in three Germans
approve of the job she is doing, according to recent opinion
polls. Fewer than one in three is happy with Steinbrueck.
Steinbrueck performed well as finance minister in Merkel's
first government, a "grand coalition" of his SPD and her
conservatives which ruled from 2005 to 2009. But while he deftly
handled the global financial crisis then, the 66-year-old is
struggling to win over voters now.
The SPD hopes Steinbrueck's habit of speaking his mind will
contrast favourably with Merkel's blandness. But so far it has
only got him, and his party, into trouble.
At a congress in Bavaria on Sunday, the SPD will try to draw
a line under Steinbrueck's disastrous campaign start.
The party will present a policy programme that promises to
address the social cost of the Merkel years. It includes more
spending on education, equal pay for women, a nationwide minimum
wage, affordable housing and measures to "tame" financial
markets and crack down on tax havens.
"More 'us' and less 'me'," is the new slogan of Germany's
oldest party, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.
German media joke that the real message behind the SPD's motto
is "less Steinbrueck".
Part of the problem is that Steinbrueck, a moderate who
backed former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's controversial
overhaul of the welfare state, has had to bend over backwards in
recent months to satisfy left-wingers in his party.
He has agreed, for example, to raise the top level of income
tax to 49 percent from 45. And he regularly rails in his
speeches against bankers and income inequality.
"Merkel talks about regulating the financial markets but
does nothing about it. Peer Steinbrueck would do it," said
Sascha Vogt, head of the SPD's leftist youth wing Jusos.
But his leftward shift has come at a price, diluting his
image as a straight talker and confusing voters, who now
question what he stands for.
Selected last September after the rest of the SPD "troika" -
former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and party
chairman Sigmar Gabriel - ruled themselves out, Steinbrueck has
long had a reputation for shooting from the hip.
As finance minister he offended Germany's neighbours in 2009
in a row over tax havens by likening the Swiss to "Indians"
running scared from the cavalry.
Tall, bespectacled and jowly with grey suits and a paisley
scarf, Steinbrueck can appear pedantic and aloof. Soon after he
was named candidate, he caused offence with snobbish remarks
about cheap wine and about chancellors being underpaid.
More damaging still were revelations he had earned 1.25
million euros ($1.6 million) as an after-dinner speaker since
leaving the government in 2009. Many of the speeches were to the
same financial institutions he now promises to "tame".
"He has no political instinct," said a Merkel aide. "That is
the difference between any old MP and a chancellor candidate."
In a recent Forsa poll only 24 percent of respondents
thought Steinbrueck diplomatic enough to be chancellor. SPD
leaders know his style has risks but are convinced it lends him
an air of authenticity. "I wouldn't like him to avoid speaking
his mind because it would undermine his appeal," a senior SPD
Some media commentators like his straight-talking style,
with the top-selling Bild newspaper saying in a column it "could
be his strongest trump card" against an "often nebulous" Merkel.
Microphone in hand in a Berlin auditorium last week, the SPD
candidate had his audience in stitches. Academics who heard him
at the London School of Economics in February called him a
"funny guy" - not a description usually attached to Merkel, who
leads the Christian Democrats.
This has not prevented a precipitous decline in
Steinbrueck's ratings since mid-2011, when he was briefly
Germany's most popular politician.
"It was certainly very entertaining," said Moritz Steinle, a
German student at the LSE. "But I still think for the future of
Germany the Christian Democrats are probably a better choice."
The SPD knows Merkel's soaring domestic reputation thanks to
her euro crisis leadership will make her hard to beat. "The
woman is a cult," shrugged a top campaign aide to Steinbrueck.
The SPD campaign strategy, inspired by Barack Obama's U.S.
Democrats, is to go "grass roots". They are knocking on doors
and vowing to mobilise supporters like they did when Schroeder
won a decade-and-a-half ago. Four years ago, the party had its
worst election result in the post-war period with 23 percent.
Steinbrueck has said he will avoid big speeches, instead
focusing on "living-room chats" and intimate events like the
Berlin studio theatre event. The hope is that he will come
across less as aloof in person than in the media's glare.
Humanising Steinbrueck is one of the party's big challenges.
But he has ruled out using his wife and daughters to soften his
image and they will not appear on stage at Sunday's congress in
the city of Augsburg.
"My impression is that people really haven't understood yet
why he wants to be chancellor," said another SPD strategist.