By Noah Barkin
BERLIN (Reuters) - Bill Clinton may have been the first to use a strategy of "triangulation" to win an election, co-opting policies of his Republican rivals to win a second term as president in 1996.
But it is Germany's Angela Merkel who seems to have turned the tactic, coined by controversial Clinton campaign guru Dick Morris, into an art form.
With a year to go until Germans go to the polls, the country's leftist opposition parties are searching desperately for issues to throw at the conservative chancellor and finding the cupboard alarmingly bare.
It has been a great few years for opposition parties elsewhere in Europe. With the euro zone debt crisis raging, incumbents have been booted out of office in France, Italy, Spain and a host of smaller countries, including bailout victims Greece, Ireland and Portugal.
In the Netherlands, the big winner in an election set for September 12 is likely to be a far-left party that until recently was seen as a bit player in Dutch politics.
Yet Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), who will celebrate their 150th anniversary next year, and their left-leaning allies the Greens, have watched Merkel peck away at their programs, turning their most potent positions - on nuclear power, the environment, education, childcare and wages - into her own.
On the euro crisis, the theme that seems sure to overshadow all others in a German vote set for September 2013, Merkel has walked a tightrope, appeasing her bailout-averse domestic audience with tough rhetoric while keeping just enough money flowing to Europe's battered periphery to ensure the euro train does not go off the rails on her watch.
The SPD meanwhile has tied itself in knots as it searches for a euro policy that is at once popular with voters and different from that of Merkel.
After coming out strongly for joint euro zone bond issuance early on in the crisis, the SPD reversed course last spring after realizing that three in four Germans opposed the idea.
This summer it recalibrated again, saying a more limited form of debt mutualization was advisable but only when tied to strict fiscal conditionality - a position so close to Merkel's as to be indistinguishable to most Germans.
Lately it has taken to attacking the chancellor for not speaking up more forcefully against the European Central Bank's plans to buy the bonds of struggling euro members - not exactly a vote winner, even in Germany.
"The problem is that the SPD has no theme," said Klaus-Peter Schoeppner, head of the Emnid polling group. "On the euro crisis they have swung back and forth. They are not offering a real alternative to Merkel."
The SPD kicked off an internal debate on its election platform early last year. In mid-September it will hold a "Zukunftskongress", or conference on the future, to debate the policies it intends to take into the campaign.
But high-ranking members of the party concede in private that little of substance will emerge. Instead the party has decided to play for time in the hope that the euro crisis, domestic economy and political tide turn against Merkel.
"It makes sense to wait this out," said one senior SPD official who requested anonymity out of reluctance to openly discuss party strategy.
"A weakening economy would make the campaign much easier for us. And we could see the euro crisis deepening, forcing more rescues and making it very difficult for Merkel to keep people in her own ranks on board."
The party also plans to wait until after a January election in the state of Lower Saxony to pick a challenger to Merkel.
The hope is that an SPD-Greens victory in the central German region will give the left vital momentum, showing voters that victory is also achievable at the national level.
But even if it comes out on top, finding the right candidate will be tough. The odds-on favourite is Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the respected but colorless former foreign minister who went up against Merkel in 2009, only to deliver the worst result for the SPD in the post-war era - a meager 23 percent.
He is seen as the least bad option among the SPD's leadership "troika". Party chairman Sigmar Gabriel is a fighter but unpopular and undisciplined. In an interview last week he all but took himself out of the race, saying he planned to cut back on his working hours to spend more time with his family.
Former finance minister Peer Steinbrueck, the third option, may be the one who wants it most. But he is regarded with suspicion by the party's influential left-wing and the momentum behind his candidacy has faded since he made clear late last year that he wants to be the SPD's frontman.
"If the SPD could combine the positives of each of them - Steinmeier's seriousness, Steinbrueck's financial acumen and Gabriel's campaigning skills - they'd have a great candidate," said Peter Loesche, emeritus professor at Goettingen University.
"But more than anything they need a strategy. Waiting until the euro falls apart or the economy collapses doesn't cut it."
The environmentalist Greens, who shot to record highs of over 20 percent in national polls early last year only to fade after Merkel herself jumped on the anti-nuclear bandwagon following Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster, are also engaged in a painfully public dance over who will lead the party into the vote.
Once celebrated for their youthful vigor and counter-culture creed, the Greens are now run by 50-somethings in suits, and the upstart Pirate party is siphoning away young supporters.
Richard Hillmer, who heads polling group Infratest-Dimap and advises the SPD, believes the party should give up trying to score points against Merkel on the euro crisis.
"She has positioned herself in such a way that there is very little scope for the SPD to benefit," he said.
Instead, he says the left should challenge her on other themes, for example her failure to put in place stronger banking regulations, her ill-planned switch out of nuclear power, and rising inequalities in German society.
But even on these issues, Merkel and her aides are busy triangulating, working quietly on their own plans to neutralize any and all fields of attack.
(Editing by Mark Potter)
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