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Europe's Socialists Lose Ground in Downturn

Kerstin Theuer, 39, a schoolteacher and undecided voter from Hanover, attended the Social Democrats rally but said she was dubious about their economic platform and job-creation plan.

"I doubt they can do everything they say," she said. "It would be more credible for somebody to say we just don't have the money right now." She said she thought Merkel had done an effective job overall.

Merkel and her party have sustained little damage from Social Democrat accusations that they are too cozy with bankers and big corporations that have required government bailouts. In fact, the most popular member of Merkel's cabinet is the economy minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, an upper-crust nobleman known as the Baron from Bavaria.

In contrast, the Social Democrats have suffered from the impression that they have strayed from their working-class roots.

The party was battered by a mini-scandal last month when news surfaced that the health minister, Ulla Schmidt, had taken her government-issued, $120,000 Mercedes S-class sedan on vacation to Spain, where the car was stolen. Schmidt insisted she had done nothing wrong and needed the vehicle and chauffeur -- instead of a rental car -- because she had to take care of some official business during her holiday on the Spanish coast.

Georg Klimke-Severith, a retired social worker from Hanover, said he was a longtime union member and supporter of the Social Democrats, but he stopped automatically voting for the party several years ago. Now he favors the Green Party most of the time.

"It used to be that unions were more important to the Social Democrats," he said at the rally Monday. "The working class today has the feeling that they don't matter as much."

Germany built an extensive social-welfare net after World War II. It remains a point of pride among a majority of Germans, who consider it the state's responsibility to provide universal health insurance, retirement pensions and unemployment benefits.

Such welfare programs have become increasingly expensive, however, especially as Germany's population has become older on average, with fewer workers to foot the bill. Under former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the Social Democrats trimmed jobless benefits and other programs, which many economists said had become unsustainable. But the party paid for it at the polls in 2005, when Schroeder lost his bid for reelection to Merkel.

Hans-Ulrich Klose, a Social Democrat member of the German Parliament from Hamburg, said the changes were necessary but that Schroeder and the party failed to explain the financial realities to the public. He said many longtime supporters still haven't forgiven the party and have shifted loyalties to other factions.

"We need to tell people in Germany the truth, even if it hurts," Klose said. "We should not act as if we have a solution for every problem."

Another factor working against the Social Democrats in the campaign: Germans put a premium on order and stability. In the 1950s, former Chancellor Konrad Adenauer ran campaigns based on the slogan, "No Experiments."

"People don't like to change horses," said Peter Loesche, a political scientist at University of Goettingen. "It's the fear of change that people are anxious about right now."

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