The woman who wants to rule Germany stepped to a microphone on the packed main square of this industrial city and reminded the crowd of the nation's woes. The jobless rate is the highest since the end of World War II, she noted bleakly, economic growth is the weakest in Europe, the national mood gripped by doubt.

So what would Angela Merkel do about it? "Now, I don't expect to hear loud applause," she warned at the recent campaign event, before describing how she would raise the national sales tax -- already 16 percent for most items -- to pay for her party's job-creation program.

Moans and grumbles rose from the audience of about 8,000 people. But Merkel didn't back down. "You can decide," she said. "We can continue as we have been, with promises of blue skies. But promises already have been made and promises have been broken. That needs to change."

Unsmiling, unstylish and uncharismatic, Merkel, 51, is bidding to become Germany's first female chancellor, as well as the first to have grown up behind the Iron Curtain, in the former East Germany. Polls show that her party, the Christian Democratic Union, holds a lead, albeit a narrowing one, in a national election scheduled for Sunday and that she stands a very good chance of sitting at the chancellor's desk in Berlin.

The vote comes at a pivotal moment for Germany, the biggest country in Europe and the world's third-largest economy. Despite spending more than $1.5 trillion over the past 15 years to reunify the nation, Germany has failed to heal many divisions between east and west. It is also grappling with the competitive challenges of globalization, as German companies move jobs to lower-wage countries.

Although Merkel's party leads in the polls, for many Germans she remains a remote figure. The former physicist rarely talks about her personal life, her upbringing under communism or how she became involved in politics. She often appears dour and uncomfortable. On her latest campaign poster, she looks like she's clenching her teeth as she forces a grin.

"Typical German," said Kai Sausmikat, 41, a voter who came to hear Merkel at the Osnabrueck rally, pulling down the corners of his mouth into a clown-like frown.

Merkel's rivals, inside and outside her party, show little regard for her political skills. In July, when the Parliament voted to hold early elections, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told Merkel to her face that her campaign would collapse. "Mrs. Merkel, at this moment with your opinion polls, you appear like a magnificent-looking souffle in the oven," Fischer said. "We'll see what's really left after the voters prick into it. I can't wait."

If the election were a personality contest, surveys suggest Merkel would lose by a wide margin to the telegenic incumbent, Gerhard Schroeder. But in Germany's political system, national leaders are chosen by party, and the Christian Democrats lead the polls.

Merkel has run a simple campaign that makes no attempt to capitalize on her sex. She has focused on a plan to generate jobs by cutting payroll taxes and making it easier for companies to hire or fire workers. She has also called for an overhaul of Germany's notoriously complicated tax code.

A victory for her party would likely mean closer relations with Washington. Merkel has strongly criticized Schroeder for alienating the United States, Germany's closest postwar ally, in disputes over Iraq, although she does not support sending troops to that country.

Early Years Under Communism

Merkel was born in 1954 in Hamburg, a port city in West Germany, the first child of a Protestant pastor and an English teacher. When she was an infant, her father moved the family to the East German state of Brandenburg, crossing a border that had not yet hardened but was already marked by an exodus of Germans heading in the opposite direction.

Her father, Horst Kasner, sympathized with the utopian goals of the Communist government there. But his precise relationship with it is difficult to untangle.

As a preacher in a society that discouraged religion, Kasner was considered politically suspect. His wife, Herlind, was not allowed to teach school because of her husband's profession. But the family was granted privileges not afforded to most citizens, including two cars and permission to travel to the West.

When Angela entered elementary school in Templin, a town of about 11,000 people north of Berlin, her parents decided not to enroll her in the Young Pioneers, a Communist Party youth group. They changed their minds a year later after her teachers made clear she would suffer academically if she didn't join, according to interviews in her home town.

"Her parents, especially her mother, were very interested in making sure Angela wasn't stuck in the corner as a pastor's daughter," said Hans-Ulrich Beeskow, a middle-school math teacher who recalled Merkel as an especially gifted student. "It wasn't political engagement by any means. It was important to her mother to make sure no stones were thrown in her path."

Merkel excelled at math, Russian and English, and was rewarded with a coveted university slot in Leipzig. She studied physics and remained active in Communist youth groups, a prerequisite for university students.

In 1977, she married a fellow physics student, Ulrich Merkel. They divorced five years later.

In an interview with Evelyn Roll, a German journalist and biographer, Merkel said she was vigilant about suppressing any political opinions that might have attracted attention. "It was a real advantage from those times that you learned to keep quiet," she said. "That was one of the survival strategies."

In the late 1970s, she has said, she was approached by two men who asked her to serve as an informant for the East German intelligence agency, the Stasi. Merkel said she balked, arguing that she would be a poor spy because she was bad at keeping secrets.

She ended up in East Berlin, where she earned a doctorate in physics and worked as a researcher at the Academy of Science.

As a politician on the stump, Merkel has shied away from discussing life under communism, even when addressing East German audiences.

On Sunday, she visited her home town of Templin for the first time during the campaign. About 600 people, including her mother, heard her speak outside a beer garden. Rather than wax nostalgic, Merkel merely acknowledged that the region "is what you call home" and recited her standard speech.

Such detachment has alienated many eastern Germans, who had hoped she would stand up for a region some westerners view as backward. In Templin, for instance, there are no visible reminders that the hometown girl is running for chancellor, aside from a few stock campaign posters.

"If you walk through Templin and ask ordinary citizens, they don't want her to be chancellor," said Ulrich Schoeneich, the Templin mayor, a Social Democrat who is friends with Merkel's mother. "In part, she has forgotten where she came from."

A Climb to Party Leadership

Merkel was late to the East German political revolution in 1989. She avoided early public protests against the Communists, focusing instead on her job. On the chaotic evening when the Berlin Wall was breached, she joined thousands of others in crossing to the other side, biographers have recounted, but returned home a few hours later because she had to get up early the next morning to go to work.

Gradually, she lost some of her caution and became involved in politics. Six weeks after the fall of the wall, she joined a new party, Democratic Awakening, and found a fresh calling as a press secretary.

"She had a chance to get involved and make a change, and she took advantage of the situation," said Rainer Eppelmann, a former leader of Democratic Awakening and now a member of Parliament.

In 1990, she was named deputy spokeswoman for the first -- and last -- democratically elected government in East Germany. After unification that year, she joined the Christian Democrats, who promptly named her as a candidate for Parliament.

She won the spot and attracted the interest of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was looking for easterners to fill leadership jobs in his government. All of a sudden she found herself a member of Kohl's cabinet, with the title of minister for family and women.

At the time, Merkel was unmarried but living with a former academic adviser, Joachim Sauer. The couple married in 1998, but only after the archbishop of Cologne chided Merkel to formalize the relationship.

Merkel continued her climb into the upper ranks of the Christian Democrats through a combination of good timing and political savvy, political analysts say. In 1998, she took over as head of the party after Kohl, her mentor, became ensnared in a campaign finance scandal. Since then, she has eased out rivals and pressured competitors to stand aside so she could seek the chancellorship.

Merkel, who is childless, has built a wall around her private life and rarely appears with her husband in public. But that hasn't stopped opponents from taking personal shots. In an interview published last month, Schroeder's wife, Doris Schroeder-Koepf, highlighted Merkel's lack of children by calling her insensitive to the needs of working mothers.

The German mass media have also made sport of her personal appearance. After ignoring such critiques, she began a gradual makeover two years ago, visiting a celebrity hairstylist in Berlin who also counts Schroeder as a client.

The commentary has generated sympathy for Merkel, especially among women who see the attacks as sexist.

"She grew up in East Germany and is a natural scientist -- that means she was exposed to less pressure for so-called 'female' behavior than we western women were," said Alice Schwarzer, Germany's best-known feminist, in an e-mailed response to questions. "My advice: Stay true to herself. Stay authentic! Everything else would seem false."

Special correspondent Shannon Smiley contributed to this report.

Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat, is hoping to become Germany's first female chancellor. Angela Merkel, whom some Germans regard as remote, signs autographs during a rally.