Conservative Laschet struggles for momentum in German leadership race

FILE PHOTO: North Rhine-Westphalia's State Premier, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party leader and candidate for chancellor Armin Laschet speaks as he holds a news conference after a CDU leadership meeting, in Berlin, Germany, September 20, 2021. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse/File Photo

BERLIN (Reuters) - Armin Laschet has been betting that his credentials as a tried-and-tested manager will make up for what critics call a lack of charisma in the contest to become Germany's chancellor.

Yet days before a national election in which Laschet is the conservatives' candidate, his Social Democrat rival, Olaf Scholz, appears to be beating the centrist premier of Germany's most populous state at his own game.

While Laschet's ratings have suffered since he was caught on camera laughing during a visit to a flood-hit town in his home state of North-Rhine Westphalia in July, Scholz's calm demeanour and air of competence have helped make him the frontrunner in Sunday's election.

In a televised debate this week, Laschet, 60, went on the attack, criticising Scholz's record fighting money laundering as finance minister and warning that a potential coalition led by his main rival could push Germany into a "severe crisis".

But Scholz, who is also Germany's vice chancellor, responded strongly, and a snap poll declared him the winner of the final televised debate.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is not seeking a fifth term after 16 years in power, appealed to voters this month to back Laschet after her Christian Democrats' (CDU) ratings hit all-time lows.

She told lawmakers a government led by Laschet would give Germany what it needs - "stability, reliability, moderation and the middle ground."

But Laschet's promise of "steadfastness" has not been resonating with voters worried about climate change, immigration and the COVID-19 pandemic. The conservatives trailed the Social Democrats in the latest opinion polls despite narrowing the gap.

Laschet, who worked as a journalist early in his career and later served as a lawmaker in the German and European parliaments, has been premier of North-Rhine Westphalia since mid-2017. He has been the CDU's leader since January.

(Reporting by Tanya Wood and Petra Haverkamp, Writing by Tomasz Janowski, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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