If German politics were just about personalities, then Lower Saxony governor David McAllister, the son of a Scottish soldier and a German teacher, wouldn't have much to worry about ahead of the Jan. 20 state election.
The leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the northern German state is exuberant and popular, and he knows how to sell himself. Some of the campaign posters of the 41-year-old politician are so gigantic that the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) have accused him of waging a "Cuban-style personality cult."
A CDU film made for the campaign highlights his Scottish roots with rousing bagpipe music and the lyric: "Our chieftain is a Scot and we're a strong clan."
His CDU is well ahead in opinion polls, scoring 40 percent according to an Infratest dimap survey completed on Jan. 2, compared with 34 percent for the SPD and 13 percent for the Greens.
But despite all that, McAllister is in serious danger of losing the state to his SPD challenger Stephan Weil, the mayor of the state capital of Hanover, a local technocrat so dull and unassuming that a third of Lower Saxons still don't know who he is, even after weeks of hard campaigning.
Weak FDP Poses Risk
The problem for McAllister is that his junior coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democratic Party, is mired in a chronic opinion poll slump , both at the national level and in Lower Saxony, and may fail to clear the 5-percent hurdle needed to remain in parliament.
If that happens and the Left Party and Pirate Party don't make it in either, the SPD and Greens could get enough seats to form a center-left coalition and send McAllister packing. German politics traditionally hinges on coalition-building and the biggest party doesn't always get to be in government.
The Infratest poll had the FDP at 4 percent and the Left Party and Pirates at 3 percent each.
A center-left win in Lower Saxony would be a blow to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is hoping for a political boost that would give her momentum ahead of a September general election in which she is hoping to win a third term.
Dangerous Parallel For Merkel
A defeat for McAllister would serve as a reminder that she too could be toppled, despite her popularity and the strength of her party in opinion polls, simply because of the FDP's weakness.
In addition, if Weil were to become Lower Saxony governor, center-left parties would have an increased majority in the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, which would make it harder for Merkel to get legislation approved.
A nationwide opinion poll released on Wednesday gave Merkel a painful reminder of her dilemma: According to the Forsa institute, her CDU is at a record high of 42 percent -- but the FDP is at an almost negligible 2 percent.
The poll is likely to heighten pressure on the FDP's embattled leader Philipp Rösler, who is also Germany's economics minister, and could subject the party to more internal squabbling that is unlikely to improve its prospects in Lower Saxony.
In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE published on Wednesday, McAllister tried to sound confident. Asked about the poor showing of the FDP, currently polling at 4 percent in Lower Saxony, he said: "Where there are 4 percent one can quickly get 5 percent or more. I am sure that the Lower Saxony FDP will make it."
Pinning Hopes on TV Debate
He pointed out that 40 percent of voters hadn't made up their minds yet and that his upcoming TV debate with SPD challenger Weil could play a significant role.
"With the undecided voters I see much bigger potential for the CDU and FDP," McAllister said. "Weil and the SPD are clearly jumping the gun. Now they and the Greens are publicly talking about posts, big and little. That's presumptuous. And the people of Lower Saxony don't like that. The SPD is tired and exhausted."
In a tongue-in-cheek remark, he said he would welcome many campaign appearances in Lower Saxony by Peer Steinbrück, the SPD's increasingly gaffe-prone challenger to Merkel in the general election. "I wouldn't object to that," he said.
Steinbrück's bid for the chancellorship, already dented by controversy surrounding his income from lucrative speaking engagements in the last three years, suffered a further setback last week when he said German chancellors should be paid more.
"For me, it's an honor to hold the public office of Lower Saxony governor," McAllister said in a swipe at Steinbrück. "This is about serving, not earning."
McAllister has never stood in an election before. He took over as governor from Christian Wulff in 2010 after Wullf was elected as German president. He is seen as a potential high-flier in the CDU, though. Should he lose, Merkel might find him a senior position in Berlin.
Predictably, McAllister dismissed the idea this week. Asked if he would move to the German capital if he lost, McAllister said: "I'm governor and will remain governor."