BELZIG, Germany (Reuters) - Germany’s foreign minister strolls through an organic farm, buys an apple from smiling children -- and then turns from the idyllic scene to call his counterpart in Norway to discuss the Georgia crisis.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a virtual unknown on the German political scene when he became its top diplomat in 2005, has emerged as the leading candidate to take on conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel in next year’s general election.
But if he and his struggling Social Democrats (SPD) are to have a chance against the popular “Angie,” Steinmeier knows he will need to shed his image as a serious technocrat and show he can connect with common people.
A trip this week to the rural east German region where he hopes to win a parliamentary seat in 2009 was one of the first real tests of the white-haired, 52-year-old Steinmeier’s skills as a political campaigner and underlined the challenge he faces.
“He certainly isn’t the drinking buddy type,” farm worker Hans-Juergen Cieslak said, watching Steinmeier joke with farmers and children in Brandenburg.
“He’s serious. Everything he says seems to have substance. He certainly knows his stuff,” he added, shortly before Steinmeier’s limousine left his sleepy town, followed by a motorcade of four dozen journalists and camera teams.
Campaigning is a novelty for Steinmeier, who has earned respect for his work ethic and mastery of detail as foreign minister, but has never been elected to office.
Although he joined the SPD more than 30 years ago, he did not climb the party ladder through youth groups or regional power centers like many of his top party colleagues.
That has opened him up to criticism that he lacks the political skills necessary to unite the party and lead it to election victories.
Recently, he has labored overtime to soften his image.
Sporting a baseball jersey, Steinmeier threw the opening pitch at a Boston Red Sox game in April. A few weeks later, he cruised China’s Yangtze River and spent an hour posing for pictures with young Chinese in the pouring rain, his black shirt soaked.
In Brandenburg, Steinmeier watched local firemen go through their routine and teenage skaters train, but he seemed most at ease when questions moved from the local poultry farm or fire engine to the conflicts in Georgia or Afghanistan.
“I would have much preferred not to have this trip being overshadowed by crises,” Steinmeier said outside a skating rink, in between calls to fellow diplomats. “I want to see more of this region. It’s a shame that I don’t have my head free.”
SPD party head Kurt Beck, who has still not said whether he intends to run for chancellor himself, is under fire within the SPD for backing cooperation with a new far-left party.
Many in the SPD wonder whether the discrete Steinmeier can maneuver the centre-left party up from an opinion poll low and mount a challenge to Merkel, with whom he has worked closely in Berlin’s awkward “grand coalition” for the past three years.
“Steinmeier has the advantage that he’s relatively well-regarded,” said Klaus-Peter Schoeppner from pollster Emnid. “One of his problems is that he’s seen as more of a foreign expert and bureaucrat than an internal crisis manager.”
Schoeppner advised Steinmeier against attempting a drastic change in style in an effort to lure voters.
“A certain degree of authenticity is more important than being seen eating bratwursts,” he said.
Steinmeier, who has a doctorate in law, made a name for himself as the chief of staff of former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The two come from the same region in northern Germany, share a sturdy build and an eerily similar deep voice.
But while Schroeder was known for his flair, passionate speeches and back-slapping swagger, Steinmeier often seems more comfortable and effective operating in the background -- not unlike Merkel.
In eastern Germany, Steinmeier sat patiently through long presentations on issues ranging from organic farming to geo-satellites. He is known for asking dozens of questions, sometimes disconcerting presenters by pressing them on details.
“TAKE US SERIOUSLY”
In his three years as foreign minister, Steinmeier has earned a reputation for quiet diplomacy on sensitive issues such as the human rights situation in Russia and China.
Steinemeier has not shied away from criticizing Merkel for her more confrontational course, accusing her of conducting “shop window policies” last year when she invited the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, into her office. Her move was sharply criticized by China.
But it is unclear whether Steinmeier would represent much of a break from the economic policies of Merkel.
Like the chancellor, he is a defender of the welfare cuts conducted under Schroeder’s previous government -- a position that makes him less popular among his party’s left-wing.
For Germans like Gustav Muschert, who runs a hotel in the picturesque constituency Steinmeier hopes to win, the minister must first of all show he understands his voters.
“The question is whether he will have time for us,” said Muschert, whose regions features country roads lined with apple trees, but suffers from depopulation and high unemployment.
“He shouldn’t just stop here and use us as a springboard to get into parliament. He must take us seriously.”
Editing by Noah Barkin and Mary Gabriel