BERLIN – He sports a pot belly, scruffy mustache and ugly glasses, and likes to burp on live TV, yet 18 percent of German voters would be willing to vote for him in next month's national election.
What could they be thinking?
Horst Schlaemmer, the alter ego of German comedian Hape Kerkeling, has taken the country by storm, generating a media buzz that rivals that of Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her challenger in the Sept. 27 elections.
The comedian's press conference announcing his spoof bid was carried live on two networks. He was given a king's welcome by the city of Grevenbroich, the fictitious Schlaemmer's real home town about 25 miles northwest of Cologne. Even the genuine mayor, Axel Pruemm, was on hand.
In a plodding campaign that has lacked divisive issues, Kerkeling's campaigning focuses not so much on civic duty as on drumming up publicity for the film "Horst Schlaemmer — I'm a Candidate," which opened Thursday.
Germans are complaining that this year's race for the chancellery is one of the most boring ever. But Schlaemmer's Ruhr Valley accent and ready wit have brought comic relief to a campaign in which Merkel and Steinmeier — neither of them a riveting speaker — have offered little to set the pulse racing.
"He is ridiculing the politicians' election promises, which is an accurate parody of the real election campaign," Michael Spreng, who was an adviser to a conservative candidate in Germany's 2002 election, told the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper this week.
Kerkeling, 44, is one of Germany's most popular impersonators: He once posed as the Netherlands' Queen Beatrix at a German presidential reception. And when he opened his campaign this month, he offered interviews in his role as Schlaemmer.
Schlaemmer's campaign platform? Every German should receive a guaranteed salary of euro2,500 ($3,500), starting a month from the day of birth right up until the day of death.
Other planks include eliminating smoking bans, making visits to the tanning salon free, and including cosmetic surgery in the country's health care regime.
He's even pledged to ditch Germany's famed eagle emblem in favor of a bunny.
Kerkeling's film is reminiscent of the work of British comedian Sascha Baron Cohen as "Borat" or "Bruno." Kerkeling's mockumentary tells the story of Schlaemmer, an unhappy deputy editor of a daily paper in Grevenbroich, a nondescript city once famed for coal mining but notorious now for high unemployment.
In the film, Schlaemmer wakes up one morning and decides to run for chancellor, twisting President Barack Obama's campaign slogan, "Yes, we can," into "What the others can't do ... so can I."
Schlaemmer's promises may sound silly, but real campaign pledges by Steinmeier to create 4 million jobs over the next decade, or the opposition Left Party's pledge of "wealth for everyone," strike most Germans as no less implausible.
Merkel's campaign so far has been remarkably short of specific proposals, beyond a vague promise of tax relief that critics say is unrealistic.
"Merkel and Steinmeier are two sober, pragmatic and rhetorically not-very-talented candidates," Spreng said. "The act of Horst Schlaemmer works only against the backdrop of these candidates, who are serious but put you to sleep."
Schlaemmer's act works so well that 18 percent of Germans said they would vote for his party if he did indeed run for chancellor next month. The poll was conducted by Forsa agency, which surveyed 1,000 people last week. It did not give a margin of error.
In the film, Schlaemmer gets less than 0.4 percent of the vote in the film. But, like a real politician he promises, "I will try it again in four years."