German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder visits the White House tomorrow in search of a badly needed Goldilocks moment: He will not want to be too cool, and certainly not too warm, with President Bush.

Their appointment is straight out of a fairy tale rewritten by the Devil. Schroeder arrives under the shadow of a political death sentence from Germany's irate electorate. All major polls show that his Social Democrats will lose decisively in the early national election that is likely to be held on Sept. 18.

Bush has every reason to be overjoyed by such a result. But he will not want to show it. That would risk stirring a backlash from a German public that hates Bush even more than it disdains Schroeder. So the president, too, will perch on the politically correct middle ground and grin only inwardly.

Schroeder was once as nimble a master of the political universe as you could find. He won two terms as chancellor against Germany's tired and discredited conservatives and extracted a modest economic reform package from its Parliament. But his talents as much as his weaknesses have carried him into this apparent dead end.

The timing and depth of Schroeder's troubles convey larger meanings for all industrial democracies today. Schroeder's Germany presents a case study of "the weakening and fragmentation of political parties" wherever leaders "approach governing as an extension of the political campaign. Such leadership marks the triumph of politics over statecraft."

That acute observation is contained in Carnes Lord's book, "The Modern Prince." A professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College who once worked for Dan Quayle, Lord predictably aims his fiercest broadside at Bill Clinton as Exhibit A of the permanent principle-free politician.

That is too harsh a judgment about Clinton. But it bears some validity for Schroeder, whom Americans can best understand as a German Clinton who never benefited from a buoyant economy or a party hungry enough to choose power over ideology. Schroeder has had neither base to see him through tough times.

Schroeder's triangulation between the union-dominated Social Democrats and German business merely angered both camps as unemployment continued to rise. More than any other single factor, Schroeder's fear of being repudiated by his own fractured party seems to have triggered his decision on May 22 to ask Germany's president to schedule elections a year early.

After a humiliating defeat in the state election in North Rhine-Westphalia that day, Schroeder faced spending the last year of his second term without any chance of getting important legislation passed in Parliament. The string of defeats that created this legislative paralysis was being blamed on him, and he realized he might be dumped by the Social Democrats in favor of a new leader for the elections scheduled in 2006.

"That, and not defeat in a general election, would be the ultimate shame for him," says a German political observer who knows Schroeder well. The chancellor is reported to have said in a key meeting with advisers: "Nobody can win an election after spending a year in a coma. We must go now."

President Horst Koehler will formally decide in July if he will set in motion the complex chain of events required to bring about early elections, which now look unavoidable. This situation resembles the disarray in Parliament in 1982 that undermined Helmut Schmidt's chancellorship.

Schroeder's trip this week was planned months ago as a three-day sweep across the United States to demonstrate that tensions over Iraq were dissipating. Now the chancellor comes to meet with Bush, give one speech and then leave, hoping for neither snub nor embrace at the White House.

Administration insiders say that Bush has yet to forgive Schroeder fully for promising the president not to use Iraq as a campaign issue in his successful 2002 reelection bid and then using little else.

The trickiest issue the two leaders will discuss is a German-backed proposal to create six new permanent members on the U.N. Security Council. Bush will stress that U.S. opposition to the plan is not aimed at Germany -- and certainly not at Schroeder -- but is a matter of principle. If the chancellor accepts that, the president should then offer to sell him a bridge in Brooklyn.

Schroeder journeys to Washington on a trip he cannot want to make, for what could be a farewell visit to the White House. That prospect alone is certain to keep Bush in a Goldilocks frame of mind for this encounter of a strained kind.

jimhoagland@washpost.com