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BERLIN (AP) _ Germany's tightly fought election campaign drew to a rancorous close Saturday under the shadow of mounting tensions with Washington over an oblique comparison between the U.S. president and Adolf Hitler reportedly made by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's justice minister.

Schroeder moved to calm the storm Friday, writing a conciliatory letter to President Bush shortly before Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin again denied remarks attributed to her by a German newspaper. Its article quoted her as saying Bush, like Hitler, was threatening war to distract attention from domestic problems.

In comments published Saturday in The Financial Times newspaper, Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was quoted as saying that the alleged comments created a ``poisoned'' atmosphere.

Schroeder said in his letter to Bush that ``the minister has assured me that she never made the remarks attributed to her.'' He added: ``I would like to assure you that no one has a place at my Cabinet table who makes a connection between the American president and a criminal.''

Still, the campaign for Sunday's vote already was characterized by unusually harsh rhetoric about the Bush administration as Schroeder emphatically opposed American military action to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The stance is credited with helping Schroeder claw back from a deficit in the polls against his conservative challenger, Edmund Stoiber. Schroeder's Social Democrats were running neck-and-neck with Stoiber's Christian Democrats going into the vote. Lawmakers choose their chancellor after the election.

``I would say it's not been a happy time with Germany,'' Rice told The Financial Times. ``There have clearly been some things said that are way beyond the pale. The reported statements ... even if half of what was reported was said, are simply unacceptable.''

Tensions spiked after the Schwaebisches Tagblatt regional newspaper reported Thursday that Daeubler-Gmelin told a labor union meeting: ``Bush wants to distract attention from his domestic problems. That's a popular method. Even Hitler did that.''

On Friday, Daeubler-Gmelin gave a different version. She said during the course of a chaotic discussion that touched on Iraq, she had referred to diversionary tactics and had used the words ``we know that from our history, since Adolf Nazi.'' But she denied saying the name Hitler, and insisted she had made no comparison with Bush.

Stoiber has accused Schroeder of damaging U.S.-German relations with his hardline stance on Iraq, and urged Daeubler-Gmelin's immediate removal.

``Every day, every hour that this unbearable woman remains in office and represents Germany is damaging to Germany, very damaging,'' Stoiber told thousands of supporters at his closing campaign rally Friday night in Berlin.

Business management student Moritz Sturken, 24, attending the rally, agreed.

``I think she has poisoned the climate with these words and I would be ashamed to go abroad and be connected to these ideas,'' he said.

Stoiber hammered away at the theme that for months gave him the advantage _ Germany's stagnant economy and an unemployment rate that remains close to 10 percent despite Schroeder's pledge four years ago to slash joblessness.

``This is a decision about Germany's direction _ an upturn or a downturn,'' he said. Stoiber also highlighted his opposition to a new immigration law that he claims will trigger an uncontrollable influx of foreigners to Germany.

At his own rally in Dortmund, Schroeder told some 16,000 supporters that ``four years ... have moved our country forward, but we haven't yet achieved our aims.''

He did not address the Daeubler-Gmelin controversy. But while the chancellor attempted to smooth over that row, the party that likely would be the junior coalition partner in a Stoiber government also faced problems.

The liberal Free Democrats have isolated their deputy leader, Juergen Moellemann, in protest over his renewal last week of attacks on prominent German Jewish leader Michel Friedman, who has clashed with Moellemann over the latter's strident criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Party leaders have refused to appear with him at rallies and some suggested seeking his ouster.

``It's a good thing that this election campaign is finally over,'' the mass-circulation daily Bild said in an editorial. ``The government parties are damaging German-American relations in an unprecedented manner for the sake of their electoral success. A loose cannon is digging for anti-Semitic sentiments.''

``It will be hard to vote tomorrow,'' Bild added.