By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's conservative Christian Democrats will focus their TV advertising campaign on Chancellor Angela Merkel while the opposition Social Democrats put ordinary people in their ads and all but ignore their struggling candidate, Peer Steinbrueck.
The rival parties kicked off the final month of campaigning for the September 22 election by presenting strikingly different TV strategies on Thursday. Merkel's conservatives hold a 16-point lead over the SPD in opinion polls but her center-right coalition may fall short of a majority.
"Germany is in good shape and we can't allow that to be put at risk," Merkel calmly intones in the central message of the 90-second advert, which includes unusual high-definition close-ups of the 59-year-old leader.
"Higher taxes and other burdens wouldn't be good for Germany," the chancellor adds, indirectly attacking plans by the SPD and their Greens allies to raise taxes on high wage earners.
TV ads play a much smaller role in German campaigns than in countries like the United States but can give clues to parties' strategies, as well as trying to make sure each side's own supporters get out and vote on election day.
They are broadcast eight times for free in prime time by the big public networks, ARD and ZDF, and more than 100 times on private networks. The SPD ads begin airing on Thursday evening and the conservatives next Monday.
"It's a film about Germany, about our country's future and what's good for us," said CDU campaign manager Hermann Groehe, dismissing criticism that the ads ignore the party while zooming in for uncomfortable close-ups of the chancellor.
"I like seeing the close-up shots of her," Groehe added after repeatedly screening the ads featuring Merkel's face.
The conservatives, who have suffered a string of regional election defeats in recent years, pin their hopes on Merkel. Her steady leadership in the euro crisis, when she has conditioned help for struggling nations on tough economic reforms, has been the cornerstone for her popularity in Germany.
By contrast, the SPD opts to keep its unpopular candidate off screen for most of its ad. Instead, ordinary working people at locations around Germany stand at a red lectern with "SPD" on it, explaining the issues that are important for them.
One man demands the introduction of a minimum wage, another attacks bank bailouts, another expresses fears of worsening old-age poverty while one woman complains about the growing gap in medical care between rich and poor.
"Peer Steinbrueck didn't want to be the focal point of our ads," said SPD general secretary Andreas Nahles. "He explicitly wanted these ads to be about regular people and their genuine concerns. None of these people were cast. They're all real."
(Reporting by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Stephen Brown)