By Patrick Donahue and Arne Delfs
BERLIN - All that stands between Angela Merkel and a fourth term is six weeks of campaigning.

The German chancellor goes into the Sept. 24 election with strong personal approval ratings and a party lead of some 15 percentage points over her main challenger, Martin Schulz. Barring unforeseen upsets, her campaign team’s main worry is a repeat of her first bid for the chancellery, when a commanding poll lead was reduced to a single percentage point on Election Day.

As she returns from vacation in the Italian Alps, Merkel, 63, is intent on avoiding any sense of complacency: On Saturday, she’ll kick start a 50-stop campaign tour across the country. After 12 years in office that have made her a pillar of the global stability valued by German voters, the election looks like Merkel’s to lose.

“She’s definitely benefiting from all the international crises,” including nuclear sparring between North Korea and the U.S., Andrea Roemmele, a political scientist at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, said in an interview. As the incumbent, Merkel is in risk-averse mode, and with just six weeks to go, “time is working in her favor,” Roemmele said.

Election Calendar

Germany’s federal vote is the culmination of an electoral calendar in Europe that has seen a surge in support for anti-immigration, European Union-skeptic populists in the Netherlands and France, only for them to be defeated as the center held. In the U.K., Theresa May’s campaign on a platform of an abrupt break from the EU led to the loss of her majority.

The outcome in Germany, Europe’s biggest economy and dominant power, will influence everything from European relations with the U.S., China, Russia and Turkey to the success of French President Emmanuel Macron’s drive to remake the euro zone. Yet even as polls point to a victory for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, “the implications for fiscal policy and Germany’s relationship with its EU partners will likely depend on who the CDU picks as its junior partner,” according to BI Economics research led by Jamie Murray.

BI Economics report on Germany: Economy Running Hot, Politics Cooling Off

Merkel’s talent for occupying the political middle ground is crowding out opponents including Schulz, 61, who leads her current coalition partner, the Social Democrats. In turn, he is evoking the comeback fight by Gerhard Schroeder, the SPD chancellor who almost overturned a lead of more than 20 percentage points Merkel held at the same stage of the 2005 campaign.

“We’ll make clear what sort of differences there are between the CDU and the SPD on pensions, on health policy, on tax policy,” Thomas Oppermann, the SPD caucus leader in parliament, told reporters on Thursday. “For me, the Bundestag election is wide open.”

Approval Ratings

Still, Schulz didn’t benefit much even when Merkel dropped off the grid during an almost three-week summer vacation, which produced only scattered media photos of the chancellor and her physicist husband hiking in the Italian Alps. While Merkel’s approval rating fell 10 points during her absence to 59 percent, Schulz’s score also declined, by 4 points to 33 percent, according to a monthly Infratest Dimap poll published Wednesday.

He’s not helped by a steady economy that boasts the lowest unemployment in a quarter-century, a balanced budget and the prospect of modest tax cuts if Merkel is returned.

Latest polls suggest that Merkel holds the best coalition options while Schulz’s possibilities of forming a government are fast disappearing.

Support for Merkel’s CDU-CSU bloc was steady at 40 percent, while the SPD held at 24 percent in an FG Wahlen poll for ZDF television published Friday. The Free Democrats and the Greens, both potential coalition partners for either of the two big parties, had 8 percent each. The anti-capitalist Left party and the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany also had 8 percent apiece.

The chancellor’s party isn’t calling the outcome just yet. Many staffers at CDU headquarters in Berlin still recall how Merkel almost squandered her first bid for the chancellorship. Apart from policy gaffes, the likes of a terrorist attack, hacker leaks or a return of the refugee crisis are potential wild cards that could upset the race, according to party officials.

Schulz’s Struggle

Merkel starts her tour in the western city of Dortmund, an SPD bastion in the Ruhr Valley industrial heartland. Much of the campaign will take her to smaller towns, where she plans to focus on themes that helped her party win three state elections this year: jobs, families and public safety.

Schulz, a former European Parliament president, initially lifted the Social Democrats to near parity with Merkel’s bloc in February and March immediately after his nomination, only to see that surge fizzle. “This makes an SPD-led coalition unlikely,” HSBC economists Rainer Sartoris and Stefan Schilbe said in a note to clients.

“Overall, we think there is likely to be some readiness of the newly elected German government to push the European process forward,” they said. “But this does not mean that any new CDU-led government is likely to sacrifice its current values.”