BERLIN (AP) – As female voters consider their choices in Germany’s Sept. 18 parliamentary elections, some are wondering whether the chance to put a woman at the helm of their nation is more important to them than the party she represents.

In Germany’s political system, a voter’s decision is traditionally more influenced by the party and its platform than the individual candidate. But Angela Merkel is the first woman to run for chancellor – and even feminists are suggesting that some women will vote for her because of her gender, rather than her views.

“For the first time in the history of Germany a woman is campaigning for the office of chancellor. And that is not supposed to play a role for us women?” Germany’s leading feminist, Alice Schwarzer, said in an editorial.

Sabine Dudek, a trainer at Commerzbank, who normally supports Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats or the Greens, said Merkel would definitely get her vote.

“I think that we have to show solidarity in this situation,” Dudek said.

But her colleague at a women’s conference in Berlin, Sonja Alberts, wasn’t so sure that gender and politics should mix.

“In Germany, we vote for the party, not for the candidate,” said Alberts, who added that she was still undecided.

Merkel, 51, became the conservative Christian Democrats’ first female chairman in 2000 and was picked earlier this year as their candidate for chancellor.

More than half of Germany’s 62 million eligible voters are women and they are largely credited with helping return Schroeder to office in 2002. But recent state elections have shown women are inclined to support female candidates, regardless of party.

A poll of 1,004 men and women by the Forsa institute for West German Radio showed that only 35 percent believe it is important to have a woman as chancellor, while 85 percent said their decision was not influenced by a candidate’s gender.

Merkel, who has for years shunned discussion of her role as a woman, recently has begun reaching out specifically to a female audience, seeking to soften her image as a twice-married professional woman with no children.

Merkel’s husband, Joachim Sauer, a 56-year-old chemistry researcher, keeps such a low profile he’s been nicknamed “the phantom of the opera.”

She has given a rash of interviews to women’s magazines in Germany, from Cosmopolitan and the mass-circulation Brigitte to a lengthy discussion with Schwarzer in her magazine, Emma.

Merkel says she believes the choice of a candidate should not be based on gender. But in her nationally televised debate with Schroeder last week, she also underlined she would make women’s issues – combining families and career, and promoting women into top echelons of business and politics – part of her job.

“And I think that a woman as chancellor can also serve as a good example,” Merkel said.

In addition to changing her tone, Merkel has changed her appearance. The no-nonsense former scientist, sometimes derided for her less-than-glamorous image, dropped her plain, low-maintenance pageboy hairstyle for a more styled look and started wearing makeup.

Asked about the changes to her appearance, Merkel said: “Never before in my political life have I been taken so seriously as woman as in the past few months. … In return, I have publicly recognized my feminine identity to an unusual measure.”

She has had to fend off an attack from the chancellor’s wife, Doris Schroeder-Koepf, 42, who said her career path had left her out of touch with the daily experience of most German women.

“Merkel’s biography does not embody the experience of most women,” Schroeder-Koepf, a former journalist, told Die Zeit. “They are concerned with how they can have a family and a job, whether they should stay home for a few years after the birth, or how they can best raise their children.”

Merkel has refused to be drawn into the issue, stating only that her lack of children was not a conscious decision.

To counter these complaints, she points to Ursula von der Leyen, a 46-year-old doctor and mother of seven tapped to serve as her minister for women, families and health in a possible future government.

And yet, reflecting the fact that many German women see their choices as either having a career and no kids, or being stay-at-home moms, von der Leyen, too, has come under criticism by some for setting the bar too high and being a “superwoman” who manages a house full of children and a life in politics.

Speaking in Berlin at a women’s conference called “Courage to take Power,” Merkel noted: “It is interesting that a woman who has seven children has too many and another who does not have any does not have enough.”

Merkel’s party still holds an 8 percentage point lead over the Social Democrats, and whether she becomes Germany’s first female chancellor may lie more in the conservatives’ focus of creating jobs for the nation’s nearly 5 million unemployed than her gender.

Either way, some women have pinned high hopes on the change that her trailblazing chanchellorship could bring about.

“I think it’s exciting,” said Mirjana Boric, a career coach from Hamburg, who also said Merkel would get her vote. “A woman as chancellor would show the world what German women are capable of.”

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