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BERLIN, Sept 4 (AFP) - Germans go to the polls in two weeks, ready to elect the country's first woman leader and oust Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for his failure to jumpstart the spluttering economy.
Angela Merkel has hammered home the main theme of her campaign -- that a conservative government will steer the German economy out of its prolonged crisis and get the 4.7 million jobless back to work.
As a result, she has fought her way to a double-digit lead in the polls that analysts say is virtually insurmountable before the September 18 election, expected to spell the end of Schroeder's flamboyant seven years in power.
"The Social Democrats have been caught in a trap with Operation New Elections," Stern magazine political columist Hans-Ulrich Joerges said, referring to the chancellor's decision in May to seek to bring the poll forward by one year to give his coalition with the Greens a fresh mandate.
"Germans are now looking for something new, even if it is without enthusiasm," referring to Merkel's lackluster campaign.
The burning question now is which coalition with Merkel at its head will emerge.
Polls suggest the most likely outcome would be a coalition of Merkel's Christian Union (CDU-CSU) alliance and the liberal Free Democrats -- the constellation that governed Germany for most of its postwar history.
But the rise of a new breakaway alliance of ex-communists and dissidents from Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD) called the Left Party has reshuffled the cards and could effectively rob Merkel of the majority needed for her favored coalition.
That would lead to an unwieldy "grand coalition" of the Christian Union and the SPD, which briefly led Germany in the late 1960s.
Schroeder, who has said he would never be a junior partner in government, would withdraw, leaving other SPD leaders to round out Merkel's cabinet.
Merkel would be the first female chancellor of Germany and the first woman to lead a major European government in more than a decade, since Edith Cresson's brief stint as French prime minister in the early 1990s.
But like Britain's Margaret Thatcher before her, Merkel has refused to put the gender issue at the forefront of the campaign.
Merkel has cast the election as a historic choice for Germany, telling party delegates at a congress late last month it was on a par with the poll of 1949 when the country first emerged politically from the ashes of World War II and elected the conservative government of Konrad Adenauer.
"This is an election about the direction of the country," she said. "We are the light at the end of the tunnel. Everyone is waiting for a change of government."
The country is still groaning under the strain of national reunification 15 years on, with unemployment in the former communist eastern states still twice as high as in the more prosperous west.
Although Merkel is also the first German chancellor candidate to hail from the region, she has not granted the east extra attention but run "one campaign for one country".
She has outlined a cautious set of reforms that would lower the top tax rate, hike value-added tax to offset a reduction in non-wage labor costs, and overhaul the creaking health care system.
Schroeder has blasted her proposals as placing an unfair burden on the poorest.
"They want a society in which solidarity and justice hardly have a place," he said, saying the conservatives were proponents of "vulture capitalism".
He has said his own economic reforms still need time to bear fruit and has offered a few added sweeteners in his electoral platform including more money for child care.
Although the economy has dominated the campaign, the parties have also clashed on two contentious issues in foreign policy -- Turkey's bid to join the European Union and transatlantic relations.
Merkel has said she would work to offer Ankara a "privileged partnership" with the EU, while Schroeder is a fierce proponent of Turkey joining the bloc.
She has also said she will get US-German relations back on the proper footing after the deep strains sparked by Schroeder's vocal opposition to the Iraq war.
Schroeder has suggested that Merkel would cave into US pressure to send German troops to Iraq, saying only his government had the strength to be a "force for peace".
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