THOUSANDS of Germans clapped and chanted their approval in the northern port of Lübeck as Gerhard Schröder took his campaign against the Iraq war to the people.
The Chancellor has taken the lead in the election polls and the reason seems to be plain: popular backing for his defiance of US war plans. The Emnid polling institute said that, with only 11 days left to the general election, 39 per cent of Germans would vote for the Social Democrats, compared with the 38 per cent that would vote for Edmund Stoiber's Christian Democrats.
As a result, the Chancellor is turning his election campaigning into something akin to a pacifist revival movement.
For the first time since the 1980s, the Social Democrats are playing the anti-American card and, astonishingly given the outpouring of sympathy after September 11, most Germans are following the Chancellor's lead. "
"What kind of friendship is it that does not permit disagreement over the existential question of war and peace?" Herr Schröder asked the crowd. "It cannot be that a friend demands something and we immediately have to do as we are told: that's subordination and that's not my thing, not my thing at all."
This statement earned big applause. It has been a similar story across the country: the Germans seem ready to vote for a politician who stands up to President Bush.
President Saddam Hussein does not figure in the Chancellor's speeches, nor did he mention the Iraqi leader in his television debate on Sunday. Instead, he speaks of Germany's great contribution to the Afghan campaign, "second only to the United States, so we don't have to go around in sackcloth and ashes &emdash; we're doing our bit". In Berlin though, government strategists are puzzling a way out of the corner into which the Chancellor has boxed himself.
He has emphasised that he is against a war with Iraq &emdash; "Never under my leadership" &emdash; even if there is a United Nations mandate.
Herr Schröder also seems to rule out a financial contribution to such a campaign. Plainly, a common European line on Iraq has become impossible and if the Chancellor wins the election, US-German relations will be strained.
However, these strategists have mapped out a face-saving plan. Soon after the election, Germany will announce its readiness to take over as the lead nation in running the international protection force in Afghanistan.
Turkey's mandate ends in December and the Germans will ask them to extend for two more months.
By February 2003, the Germans, with the Dutch, would be in a position to take an active role in Afghanistan. This would permit British and Turkish troops there to be redeployed in an Iraq war.
Even so, there is pressure for the Afghan protection force to take on more active combat functions, a dangerous mission that would run contrary to the pacifist sentiments being aired.
The Chancellor is treading the path of other Social Democrats who have, since the war, cut a fine line between supporting and criticising US administrations. Herr Schröder's model, in Lübeck at least, is Willy Brandt, who was Chancellor in 1969. Lübeck was Herr Brandt's town and the speeches were laced with references to him. Herr Brandt introduced a conciliatory policy towards Eastern Europe, and attracted suspicion from the White House at that time.
Herr Schröder seems to be willing to risk something similar in return for national popularity. His Lübeck speech contained much left-wing rhetoric, such as: "I want to fight for the rights of those who were not born with silver spoons in their mouths." But the big applause was reserved for when he shifted to Iraq. Even the young Christian Democratic subversives who had been distributing vitamin C tablets "courtesy of Edmund Stoiber, to give new strength to Germany", suddenly melted away: the carnival part of the election campaign was over.