BERLIN (Reuters) - Tall, blond and smartly dressed, Lars Zimmermann is the kind of young man conservative German mothers would like their daughters to bring home to dinner.
Unfortunately, that is not the image he is trying to cultivate as the conservative candidate for parliament in Pankow, a trendy district of north-east Berlin where Angela Merkel’s center right party placed a dire fourth in 2009.
Pankow is divided between leafy, upwardly mobile districts of young families and Internet entrepreneurs, and hardscrabble housing blocks populated by the working class of former Communist East Berlin. None of these groups tends to vote for the conservatives, a party known for its old-fashioned values and small-town roots.
“Pankow has conservative potential,” says the candidate, trying to put a positive spin on it.
Merkel is on course to be convincingly re-elected in September thanks to the conservatives’ strong support among older voters in Germany’s countryside.
But the conservatives are flagging in cities. In the past three years the conservatives have lost control of seven of Germany’s 10 largest cities, and no longer run any of them.
For some politicians in her CDU and its CSU sister party, it is a problem that needs to be fixed, or Merkel will be badly placed to lead a coalition even if she wins the election handily.
Matthias Zimmer, a CDU parliament member from Frankfurt, said campaigning without trying to win over urban voters was like a soccer team hoping to win a championship just on home matches: “Where do you really win elections nowadays? Not necessarily with core supporters.”
As the vote approaches, the CDU is debating how to reverse this trend. Some want to jazz up its staid image. Others argue this will scare off core supporters in small-town Germany.
“The CDU has to become attractive in the big city and at the same time remain the only anchor against confusing modernity for the village in the Black Forest,” wrote Volker Resing in a new book about the CDU, called “The Chancellor Machine”.
In Pankow, listed by Cicero magazine as one of the 25 “most exciting” constituencies in the contest because no party has a firm lead, 38-year-old Harvard-educated Zimmermann knows it will be a challenge.
“You have to reach out to single mums, 80-year-olds living alone, jobless people, internet entrepreneurs or young families with a double income and two kids,” he said in Prenzlauer Berg, a trendy neighborhood that is part of the electoral district.
Merkel, who herself lives in East Berlin, defies the stereotype of conservatives as provincial. Her diverse cabinet - with five other women, a gay foreign minister, a deputy chancellor born in Vietnam and a finance minister in a wheelchair - hardly fits the image of her party as a bastion of privileged white males.
But critics argue that 58-year-old Merkel does not have the modernizing vision needed to lure younger, urban voters. She tries to strike a balancing act - pulling her party to the left on issues like nuclear power and women’s rights while respecting some red lines of a party with Catholic, rural roots.
The CDU refused to back equal tax treatment for same-sex couples, even when it became clear a court was poised to rule its stance unconstitutional. The approach contrasts with some other European conservatives, like British Prime Minister David Cameron, who have emphasized social liberalism while advocating conservative economic policies.
Heiner Geissler, CDU general secretary from 1977-89 and now an elder statesman, defends Merkel’s modernization record, but adds: “Many in the CDU believe the party is modern enough”.
Resistance on issues like gay rights comes from “a minority in the CDU - but the minority is so strong that they can put the brakes on”, Geissler said.
For Zimmer, the Bundestag member from Frankfurt, gay rights is an example of an issue “where society as a whole is far ahead of our own ideology at the moment”.
Zimmer wants the CDU to pay more attention to urban voters’ economic concerns - like the need for childcare and rising rent prices - as well as cultural and quality-of-life issues, which draw young voters to the Greens.
But with half the population living outside metropolitan zones, the party may not feel it is worth the risk.
“For every few voters you would win in the big cities, you lose 10 times that many in the Catholic heartland,” said Josef Schmid, a politics professor at Tuebingen University.
Merkel’s preferred strategy is to avoid conflict by being as vague as possible - and waiting for her rivals to make mistakes.
In 2009, after four years in a “grand coalition” with the Socialist SPD, her strategy of “asymmetric demobilization” undermined the rival party by co-opting center-left ideas.
It was a pyrrhic victory: the SPD had its worst post-war result but the CDU/CSU also scored its worst outcome since 1949. The pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) hit a record high and joined Merkel in a center-right coalition.
But FDP support has since crumbled to around the 5 percent minimum for entering parliament. That means there is a good chance the next election will force Merkel into coalition with either the SPD or the Greens. A credible performance in urban areas will be useful in forming and running such a coalition.
For CDU candidate Zimmerman, that means canvassing in places like an outdoor cafe in Pankow’s leafy Helmholtzplatz, surrounded by mothers with pushchairs who hardly profile as conservative voters. He chatted to a single mother who is still likely to vote Green, but he did not give up hope.
“If we want to attract more people, we have to reach out,” said Zimmermann.
Reporting by Stephen Brown; Editing by Peter Graff