BRAUNSCHWEIG: A decade and a half ago, Gerhard Schroeder's resounding victory in a state vote in Lower Saxony gave his Social Democrats (SPD) the momentum they needed to seize power in Germany after 16 long years of conservative rule under Helmut Kohl.
The SPD is hoping for a similar game-changing win on Jan. 20 when voters in the large western region go to the polls again, just eight months before Germany holds a federal election.
But this time, even if they do manage to defeat the state's conservative premier David McAllister, a rising star in Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), it will be tough to translate that success into victory in September, as they did in 1998.
Instead of an ageing Kohl to contend with, the SPD is up against his former protege Merkel, whose defence of German interests during the euro zone's debt crisis has made her the most popular politician in the country.
And in place of the charismatic Schroeder, who was anointed Kohl's challenger after his big win in Lower Saxony, the party is now pinning its hopes on Peer Steinbrueck, an acerbic former finance minister whose campaign to unseat Merkel has had a disastrous gaffe-filled start.
"It is a must-win for the SPD if they want to have any hope of beating Merkel in the autumn," said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at the Free University in Berlin. "It will be likened to Schroeder's victory in 1998 if they come out on top. But today's landscape is very different."
Bigger than the Netherlands, with which it shares a border, Lower Saxony is Germany's second-largest state by area, stretching from the North Sea to the edge of what used to be communist East Germany.
It is home to carmaker Volkswagen and hundreds of "Mittelstand", small-to-medium sized companies that form the backbone of Europe's largest economy.
The state has been a stepping stone to national power. Schroeder's successor as state premier Sigmar Gabriel is now leader of the SPD. The conservative who replaced him, Christian Wulff, rose to become German president before a financial favour scandal brought him down last year.
Center>Copyright Reuters, 2013