While elections aren't until next year, Angela Merkel, the 46-year-old head of the Christian Democratic Party, could end up guiding Germany as its next chancellor.
"She is something like a superstar in German politics," said Peter Kline, journalist.
But she has also worried some with rhetoric that could be considered anti-immigrant, raising the age old question: can a candidate win here by rallying votes without raising echoes of the past?
Something besides gender makes Merkel's success unusual: She is the politician who came in from the cold, the first leader of a major political party in western Europe who grew up on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall.
While the Cold War divided Germany, Merkel was a schoolgirl in the communist youth movement.
As the wall came down, she entered politics, recruited to the west by former Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
But after Kohl lost office and a financial scandal threatened to destroy his Christian Democrats, Merkel quickly some say ruthlessly abandoned her patron and unleashed her ambition.
"I'm not afraid of change," she said through a translator. "German unity has changed my life tremendously."
She has barely looked back, building credibility with a hard line on issues like immigration.
Turkish immigrants, whose Muslim faith makes them the country's largest religious minority, are the most visible of what Germany calls its seven million "foreigners."
Merkel says they must understand this is a country with a Christian background, but she told CBS News it's wrong to label her reactionary.
"For believing that a fourth-generation Turk (here) ought to be able to speak German, I shouldn't be relegated to the right wing," she said.
Yet critics say that's exactly where she's aimed her rhetoric.
"I think that many of her thoughts from the question of birth control to the question of foreigners living in Germany are ideas in this direction, were ideas of yesterday," said political analyst Martin Mantske.
Merkel's remarks concern some because resentment against foreigners has helped feed a growing Neo-Nazi movement in Germany a movement that has become increasingly violent.
The extreme right wing is small but growing, especially in the impoverished former East Germany, where disaffected youth have been taking out their frustration on immigrants.
Government statistics released earlier this year confirmed fears that far-right offenses in the country reached their highest level since World War II in 2000, surging nearly 60 percent from 1999. Violent crimes with a far-right, anti-Semitic or anti-foreigner motivation ranging from robbery to murder jumped by 34 percent.
Dozens of killings have been attributed to extremist groups ince reunification in 1990, reports CBS News Correspondent Allen Pizzey.
Concern over the past year at a surge in neo-Nazi violence has spurred the government to pledge a crackdown on the far right and to call for ordinary Germans to stand up for the victims.
The number of German Internet sites offering far-right propaganda more than doubled last year, mirroring a big rise in criminal offenses with a far-right motive, the government said in March.
Authorities counted some 800 sites with far-right content up from 330 the year before and many of them posted on U.S.-based servers, out of the reach of German law, the government said. The number of such sites has shot up annually since 32 were counted in 1996.
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