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German Flood Aid Helps Schroeder

August 27, 2002

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MAGDEBURG, Germany (AP) _ Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is riding public approval for his sure-handed response to killer floods this month, but winning over suspicious voters in the worst-hit region _ east Germany _ is a tough sell.

Despite a huge flood relief program that the government sent to parliament Tuesday, Schroeder failed to wash away a decade of gloom with a campaign stop in an eastern city that stood in the water’s path.

Few in downtown Magdeburg, an expanse of wide Soviet-style boulevards built after the city was devastated by Allied bombing in World War II, put Schroeder’s handling of the flood crisis at the top of their agenda.

``Why is he only coming now?″ pensioner Anneliese Freytag complained about the chancellor’s visit, which came nearly a week after the Elbe River’s flood wave peaked in Magdeburg, capital of one of the hardest-hit states, Saxony-Anhalt.

``There are other things I disagree with,″ she said. ``That there is so much unemployment, that the young people are all out of work.″

The floods have lifted Schroeder’s hopes of a comeback against conservative challenger Edmund Stoiber in time for Sept. 22 elections. But what makes political sense in the capital of Berlin poses a dilemma for Schroeder in the countryside: how to campaign without appearing to take advantage of people’s suffering.

After scrapping a campaign rally with music by a famed former East German rock band, Schroeder rolled up Monday in a black limousine for flood relief talks with local officials and left the city just as discreetly in the evening. It was the first campaign stop in the flood area on his final four-week campaign tour across Germany.

Schroeder has every reason to hit Saxony-Anhalt hard in his campaign. The state has Germany’s highest jobless rate _ more than twice the national average at 19.9 percent _ and his Social Democrats were crushed in elections four months ago after running the state for eight years.

Eastern voters, already impatient with slow economic progress since German reunification 12 years ago and lacking deep-seated party loyalties, are seen as a key factor at the polls.

Some in Magdeburg credited Schroeder for taking action and said his image had improved, but didn’t cite it as a reason for voting for his party. Many others said they now distrust all politicians.

``His crisis management has nothing to do with the election,″ said Christian Lauenroth, who works at an import-export company. ``They’re happy to have found a theme that covers up the real problems.″

But he said he would choose Schroeder’s party next month to keep out the opposition Christian Democrats because former Chancellor Helmut Kohl failed to keep his promise of delivering ``flowering landscapes″ in the formerly communist east.

Local Social Democratic officials say that while they are campaigning on Schroeder plans to shake up Germany’s creaking job market, they also will highlight his response to the flooding that struck homes, businesses and infrastructure over the past two weeks.

``I believe that what Gerhard Schroeder has shown in the past few days _ that he takes charge of things _ is very important,″ said Matthias Graner, a spokesman for the party in Magdeburg.

Schroeder’s $9.5 billion flood-relief package, which he intends to push through before the election, has allowed him to regain the initiative in the campaign after being pummeled for months by Stoiber over the lame economy and unemployment.

On Tuesday, the cleanup effort gathered pace as hundreds more people downriver returned to their homes and relief workers departed. The government made the first payouts from a $97 million fund for repairing cultural treasures.

But TV pictures showing a grim-faced Schroeder in a rain coat touring flood areas didn’t sway Ute Kubisch, a 47-year-old Magdeburg city employee.

``He went there and looked, that’s his duty,″ Kubisch said. ``But he didn’t really win me over.″

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