By Noah Barkin
BERLIN (Reuters) - In Germany, election campaigns are supposed to be all about parties, policies and platforms, most definitely not personalities. Now that is about to change.
Angela Merkel, at the peak of her political powers, is gearing up to run for a third term and what she hopes will be a place in the history books alongside towering post-war German leaders like Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl.
Next week, her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) will informally kick off the campaign with a two-day congress in the northern city of Hanover that is shaping up as a very un-German affair -- a Merkel-centered love-fest similar in style and spectacle to a U.S. presidential convention.
Seven years into her chancellorship, a point when her predecessors Gerhard Schroeder and Kohl were struggling with poor poll ratings, the 58-year-old Lutheran pastor's daughter from East Germany is as popular as ever.
Two in three Germans say she is doing a good job, according to surveys, and many now applaud her handling of the euro zone crisis, where she has performed a stunning feat -- keeping the single currency intact with one policy concession after another, yet still managing to be seen as a staunch defender of German interests.
Criticized early on for her cautious leadership style, Merkel's low-key approach is now hailed by many as positive in a time of turmoil.
"The CDU's main asset in this election is Frau Merkel," said Environment Minister and party ally Peter Altmaier. "She enjoys a huge amount of trust. She has no rivals and is the most popular politician in the country."
A close aide to Merkel who will have a role in shaping her re-election strategy was even more clear: "Of course we will focus this campaign on the chancellor. We'd be stupid not to."
A heavy dose of adulation has been programmed into the congress in Hanover. Delegates have only one main task, a member of the CDU executive committee told German weekly Der Spiegel: "They are to give Angela Merkel a standing ovation of at least seven minutes after her speech."
KINDER, KUECHE, KIRCHE
Still, it would be wrong to assume total harmony within the party, even if that is the message Merkel and her allies are trying to send.
Since taking power in 2005, the chancellor has pushed her party in an entirely new direction. Not all in the CDU are happy about that.
After fighting for years against a minimum wage, the party now officially supports one. And after condemning the nuclear power phase-out introduced by Schroeder's centre-left government, Merkel now says it did not go far or fast enough. Last year she shocked her party with her "Energiewende", or energy revolution, that pushes Germany out of nuclear and into renewables at alarming speed.
On social issues there is also grumbling. The CDU's approach towards women used to be summed up with three simple words: "Kinder, Kueche, Kirche", or children, kitchen, church. Now it is pushing for more childcare spots so that mothers can work and is debating the idea of imposing quotas on businesses to boost the number of women in top positions.
"We need to watch out that in our search for two new voters, we don't lose three old ones," says Wolfgang Bosbach, a senior CDU lawmaker who has clashed with Merkel in recent years.
Other controversial social issues, including a divisive debate about tax treatment of gay couples, are being swept under the table in Hanover in the name of unity.
"The truth is that Merkel has no interest in seeing a big debate on the issues. This congress is supposed to show that the party is fully behind the chancellor and her government," said Frank Decker, a political scientist at Bonn University.
"The CDU is having to appeal to a broader base, to adapt to a changed reality in society, new family structures and a bigger role for women," he added. "A traditional conservative, Christian party must find answers, it must debate these things. But Merkel is refusing to allow this debate to happen, and that breeds resentment."
In modernizing the CDU, Merkel has made it all but indistinguishable from the other big parties, the Social Democrats and Greens. By design or not, this has made the party even more dependent on Merkel for its identity.
So far that has not been a problem. The CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have a comfortable 10 point lead over the next biggest party, the SPD, 10 months before the federal vote.
Working in Merkel and her party's favor has been the disastrous start of her SPD challenger Peer Steinbrueck, who has been dogged by a row over lucrative speaking engagements since he was anointed two months ago.
Still, it would be wrong to assume Merkel's re-election is guaranteed.
The euro zone crisis remains perhaps the biggest risk, as the domestic backlash against her latest aid deal for Greece showed this week.
If Greece's financial problems flare up again before the German election, she is bound to come under fire for cynically delaying a lasting solution to the country's debt woes until after the vote out of fears for her own political future.
An economic slowdown at home could also weigh on her popularity. Hit by weakness in its trading partners, the German economy is expected to contract in the fourth quarter of 2012 and data on Thursday showed unemployment rising for the eighth month in a row.
Perhaps a bigger risk is the shifting party landscape in Germany, notably the collapse of the CDU's traditional partner, the Free Democrats (FDP), with whom Merkel rules in Berlin.
The consequences of this could be felt as soon as January, when Lower Saxony, the German swing-state equivalent of Ohio, holds an election.
Loyal Merkel ally David McAllister, a half-Scot who runs the state, is expected to come out on top in the vote, but may still be booted out of office by a coalition of the SPD and Greens if the FDP fails to make it into the state assembly.
That result would send a worrying signal to the CDU faithful.
"Lower Saxony will help shape the mood for the election year," Michael Meister, a senior CDU lawmaker told Reuters. "There will be a result, and it will carry a message."
Regardless of what happens in Lower Saxony, people close to the chancellor say she cannot rest on her laurels, but must make a convincing case about where she wants to take Germany.
"The big question will be, why again?" her close aide said. "People vote for the future not the past."
Asked what she hoped to accomplish in a third term, the aide pointed to four areas: bringing stability to the euro zone; bedding down her energy revolution; consolidating the budget; and ensuring continued growth and prosperity.
Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University, puts Merkel's chances of winning re-election next year at just 50-50 because the FDP's slide has left her without a "Machtoption", or hope of a majority with her current partner.
Others see it differently. By moving ever closer to the SPD and Greens on policy, Merkel has given the CDU more coalition options, notes Josef Joffe, publisher-editor of German weekly Die Zeit.
"She can go with a revived FDP, with Steinbrueck's SPD and, if the Greens are hungry enough, with them as well," he says, putting her chances at "close to 100 percent".
"She represents the 'good shepherd' in turbulent times. Somehow, people believe, she will get them through the mess safe and sound."
(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke; Writing by Noah Barkin; editing by Janet McBride)
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