SPD Chancellor Candidate Shows He's Human After All

Peer Steinbrück sheds a tear on the campaign trail.

Peer Steinbrück sheds a tear on the campaign trail.

By Jane Paulick

There's another three months to go before Germany goes to the polls, and little expectation that any surprises might still be in store. Incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel's victory seems pretty much assured, with the latest surveys giving her Christian Democrats 40 percent of the vote compared to just 24 percent for the main opposition Social Democrats (SPD).

Amid the unremitting tedium of an election battle that lacks distinct fronts, the most exciting news from the campaign trail this weekend was that Rainer Brüderle, the business-friendly Free Democrats' frontrunner candidate, broke his hand and foot falling off a podium. But then the scoop. At a party convention in Berlin, SPD candidate Peer Steinbrück got a little choked up.

After his wife Gertrud revealed how personally upset she is by the image of her husband peddled by the German media -- "It's hard to take," she confessed -- he himself was asked if he ever wonders why he bothers. He took a sip of water and visibly swallowed tears before picking up his microphone, only to lay it down again and signal that he needed to take a minute.

Who can blame him? Dubbed "Pannen-Peer" by the German media -- which roughly translates as "Calamity Peer" -- he has lurched from one mishap to the next since his party nominated him last autumn as Merkel's challenger. His support has dwindled even within his own party. Just a few days ago, he griped in a SPIEGEL interview about a lack of loyalty on the part of SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel, who was at pains at the convention to stress that like any "marriage," their relationship was tempestuous but robust.

Glacial No More

But it was the rare display of feeling from a man often dismissed as a heartless technocrat that proved to be a much more effective campaign strategy. Ironically, given that he once complained that Merkel benefits from "a women's bonus," it was all thanks to his wife.

From remarking that German chancellors are underpaid to admitting that he would never buy a bottle of wine that costs €5 (approx. $7), the former finance minister tends to come across as elitist and a little on the glacial side, if not downright impassive. But nothing can dispel accusations of insensitivity better than a few well-timed tears.

The moment was a public relations coup. Interestingly, it was only last week that Steinbrück sacked his spokesman Michael Donnermeyer, replacing him with Rolf Kleine, a PR pro who previously served as head of the Berlin office of the mass-circulation newspaper Bild. Coincidence? Judging by the standing ovation the audience gave him, Steinbrück's misty-eyed performance on Sunday couldn't have come at a better time.

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