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FILE PHOTO: German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomes Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg in Hamburg, Germany July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Joachim Dagenborg
OSLO (Reuters) - Erna Solberg seeks to accomplish something no Conservative Norwegian prime minister has managed for more than three decades: winning a second term.
If Norwegians are sufficiently happy with Solberg's last four years in power, they will re-elect her on Sept. 11; if not she will lose to Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Stoere. Opinion polls show the race is too close to call.
Solberg hopes to emulate a European centre-right leader with an enviable track record of winning: Angela Merkel, herself seeking a fourth term as Germany's chancellor.
"She is absolutely the most important politician in Europe," Solberg said after taking office in 2013 as she prepared for her first foreign trip as prime minister, to Berlin.
Portraying herself as a steady figure who steered western Europe's top oil and gas producer through a two-year slump in energy prices, Solberg has warned voters her defeat would mean a "red-green chaos" of socialists and environmentalists bent on raising taxes.
Once known as "Iron Erna" for her tough stance on immigration, Solberg softened her image and broadened her appeal with a 2011 book emphasising people's needs over the Conservative Party's traditional focus on fiscal prudence.
Conservatives hope to capitalise on an easy-going personality that has made Solberg popular beyond her party, as seen in a Sept. 6 poll where 46.3 percent believed her best suited to be prime minister, against Stoere's 39.1 percent.
"There is an enormous focus on her as a person, which has given the party a real boost during the election campaign," said Associate Professor Tore Bang at BI Norwegian Business School, an expert in public relations and political communication.
"The hype around her is atypical for a leader of the Conservative Party. She is seen as a much more folksy politician and has a much broader appeal than Gahr Stoere."
Born on Feb. 24, 1961, in her late teens Solberg was diagnosed with dyslexia. Graduating in political science she was elected to parliament aged 28, becoming deputy party leader in 2002 before taking the top job in 2004.
She is Norway's second female prime minister after Labour's Gro Harlem Brundtland, who led three governments in the 80s and early 90s and became known as "the mother of the nation".
"As prime minister, Solberg has really strengthened her position as an uncontested party leader. She personifies the party brand and the association between her and the party is comparable to what Gro Harlem Brundtland had in the Labour Party," said Bang of the BI Norwegian Business School.
"STABLE AND PREDICTABLE"
While the opposition was long favoured to win, opinion polls show Solberg and her allies have closed the gap in recent months, taking advantage of an economic rebound.
"It's quite apparent that the Conservative Party has looked to Germany and found inspiration in the position Merkel has taken there," said Johannes Bergh, head researcher of the University of Oslo's National Election Studies programme.
"It's a comparison that the party really likes. Merkel is very good at winning elections and offers a lot of the same things as Solberg."
The economic upturn, and concerns it could falter, will play well for the prime minister, Bergh said.
"The backdrop of this election is that the Norwegian economy is doing well again. There is no real sense of crisis anymore but people are still weary, so offering a stable and predictable Merkel-like leadership is a strategy that seems to have worked well."
If she wins, she plans to continue a policy of cutting taxes on companies and individuals, but her room for manoeuvre will be tighter as Norway's near-trillion dollar sovereign wealth fund is not expected to grow as the same pace as before.
In Norway's fragmented parliament however, where nine parties are expected to win seats, re-election will not guarantee a Solberg government survives another four years.
Kaare Willoch, the last Conservative prime minister to win back-to-back elections, in 1981 and 1985, was booted out of office just months into his second term in a disagreement over petrol taxes.
In fact, if she were to serve two full terms, Solberg would easily become the longest-serving Conservative prime minister since the introduction of the parliamentary system in the late 19th century.
(Editing by Terje Solsvik and Robin Pomeroy)