AMSTERDAM – With his mane of platinum-blond hair, Geert Wilders rose to prominence by hammering away at a hardcore anti-Islam message. Now, as the Netherlands heads into elections with economic crisis raging across the continent, Wilders has taken aim at a different target: the European Union.
But this time, the populist firebrand's attempt to ride a wave of voter anger appears to be foundering.
Wilders has tried to revive his Freedom Party's fortunes on promises to ditch the euro and ignore European budgetary rules ahead of the Sept. 12 election.
"Do we want to be the boss over our own money or do we want to be slaves to Brussels?" he told voters in the campaign's first major televised debate. Wilders said his Freedom Party wants "us to be in charge of our own country again."
His vision seems unlikely to become reality anytime soon. Freedom is lagging in the polls and centrist Dutch parties flatly reject his financial plans as too radical.
Not long ago, Wilders' tirades against the "dictators in Brussels" might have had the Dutch and European establishment running scared. Wilders became one of the Netherlands' most powerful politicians by tapping into anti-immigrant sentiment that engulfed the country after the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist.
Wilders called for banning the Quran and introducing a tax on Islamic headscarves. He made international headlines with his 2008 short film "Fitna," which portrays Islam as an ideology based on violence and hate. His rhetoric offends many Muslims, but it electrified a large bloc of Dutch voters who felt Wilders was the only politician voicing their concerns about problems caused by immigrants.
The Freedom Party emerged as the country's third-largest after June 2010 elections. When Wilders was hauled into court on hate speech charges — which he triumphantly beat — Freedom briefly topped national polls.
But then, as Europe's debt crisis forced immigration issues into the background, Wilders' popularity began a steady slide.
In an attempt to broaden his appeal, he began ramping up his anti-Europe rhetoric. Wilders has always been a skeptic of the European Union, but he hadn't concentrated on Brussels much since 2005, when he was in the vanguard as the Dutch overwhelmingly voted to reject a European constitution in a national referendum.
The new euro bashing is "a very opportunistic move," says Chris Aalberts, author of a book examining the motivations of Wilders and his supporters. With the anti-immigration vote locked up, "they're taking the gamble that there are enough people mad about the euro that they'll vote for Freedom."
Wilders loudly opposed bailouts for southern European countries, at one point printing up an oversize replica of an old drachma note and trying to deliver it to the Greek Embassy as a stunt.
Yet the Dutch economy has only slowly been dragged down by Europe's debt crisis. And Wilders' anti-European credentials never looked genuine as long as he continued to support the government. Under Prime Minister Mark Rutte's all-conservative coalition, the Netherlands has been a reliable supporter of the German approach to the crisis: austerity for all and support for weaker economies only when things seemed about to spin out of control.
In April Wilders finally withdrew his support from Rutte's Cabinet, bringing down the government and precipitating the current elections. Wilders' reason: He didn't want to adhere to Europe's 3 percent budget deficit limit.
But in an unexpected turn, euro-skeptic votes kept flowing away from Wilders in a different direction: to the far-left Socialist Party.
The Socialists, long a fringe party with no experience in national government, have grown fast under affable leader Emile Roemer, dubbed "Fozzie Bear" by a popular Dutch news blog.
Roemer, like Wilders, has said he opposes Europe's 3 percent deficit limit, but does not advocate going as far as Wilders and quitting the EU altogether.
Polls show Roemer's Socialists and Rutte's libertarian VVD Party in a neck-and-neck race to take the most votes, with each forecast to win around 32 seats in the 150-member Dutch parliament. Wilders, meanwhile is a distant third with around 18 seats — six fewer than he took in 2010.
"I wouldn't rule out that (Wilders) could still benefit from euro-skeptic vote," Aalberts said. "If you're conservative and you're against Europe, then you wind up voting for Freedom."
But he said the difference wouldn't be more than several seats, not enough to make Wilders a contender for prime minister.
With the far-left and far-right splitting the anti-euro vote, there is no credible coalition with centrist parties that would be willing to adopt a radically anti-Brussels line.
If Rutte's party is the largest, as seems likely, he has no intention of ditching the very European rules he helped draft. In Sunday's debate Rutte flatly dismissed any chance of pulling out of the eurozone.
"That would be deadly for employment in the Netherlands," he said.
Wilders voters say there are other factors working against him.
On Amsterdam's largest open air market, store owner Bob Uitermarkt said Wilders is paying the price for torpedoing the previous Cabinet, making him seem unreliable. He also doesn't take Wilders' euro plans seriously.
"It was a mistake getting into it, but there's no way back now," he said.
But he will still vote for Freedom, because he trusts Wilders will continue to do all he can to limit immigration.
"Yesterday we had a woman wearing a burqa in the store. I'm all for freedom of religion, but this is just out of place," he said. "It's like trying to talk to someone through a mailbox slot."
At a neighboring booth, Max Kloots said the point wasn't so much that Wilders is sidelined from government, but that he continues voicing his opinions forcefully. Kloots doesn't want the Netherlands to pull out of Europe, but Wilders' rhetoric is "a signal."
"He's keeping (mainstream parties) listening to the people."
The Dutch oppose any further surrender of sovereignty to Brussels by a wide margin.
Author Aalberts says Wilders may have a long career ahead of him — as an opposition gadfly.
"I'm not an economist and making predictions is dangerous, but just watch," he said. "If the VVD leads a new coalition, they will always have one eye on the polls, and Wilders will force them to take as hard a line against Brussels as they can."