By Ray Furlong
BBC News, Hanover, Germany
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has told an election campaign rally that the military option for resolving the dispute over Iran's nuclear programme should be "taken off the table".
Schroeder is relaxed and predicting victory
"We're all concerned about the developments in Iran," he said.
"We don't want nuclear weapons to proliferate further."
But Mr Schroeder said diplomacy was the answer.
"I've read that military options are also on the table," he said.
"My answer to that is: 'Dear friends in Europe and America, let's develop a strong negotiating position towards Iran, but take the military option off the table'."
His words may cause irritation in Washington, where President George W Bush has just said he does not rule out the use of force in dealing with Iran.
Mr Schroeder's speech will also revive memories of the last election campaign three years ago, when he strongly opposed the idea of attacking Iraq.
Then, as now, his Social Democratic Party (SPD) was far behind in the opinion polls, and the position on Iraq is generally believed to have been a factor in helping him win the election.
It is too early to judge whether Iran can help revive Mr Schroeder's fortunes in a similar way, but his remarks drew rapturous applause and whoops of support from the several thousand-strong crowd gathered by the Hanover Opera House.
"He made it clear Germany won't take part in any military action. This is just the policy I would hope for from a German perspective," said one man who identified himself as an SPD supporter.
His neighbour said he had not yet decided who to vote for, but that he agreed with Mr Schroeder's remarks. "They were very, very good. They should be the guidelines for international policy on this case," he said.
"I don't know what the conservative view on this is."
Mr Schroeder also focused on domestic policy in his speech, savagely criticising the opposition conservatives, the CDU/CSU, and pledging to maintain Germany's welfare state.
Issues like this may be decisive in the election.
Years of near-zero growth and an unemployment rate that topped five million people - 12% - earlier this year, have made the SPD-led government unpopular.
Mr Schroeder has been relaxed and confident in recent weeks, and his party has narrowed the CDU/CSU's lead.
Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at the Free University in Berlin, says it is at least partly an act.
"It's a difficult job for him - on the one hand knowing he won't return to the chancellor's office, and on the other obliged to save the Social Democrats," he said.
"So he can't be as relaxed as he pretends. But Chancellor Schroeder is a very good actor. He's playing a better game than Angela Merkel."
Mrs Merkel, the CDU leader, is still widely expected to be the next chancellor, but her campaign has been beset by setbacks.
First, she herself confused the terms "net" and "gross" in two television interviews, damaging her claim to greater economic competence than the government.
Then the CSU leader, Edmund Stoiber, added to her troubles in speeches where he made disparaging remarks about "frustrated East Germans".
Mr Stoiber was complaining that in the former communist East there is high support for a new left-wing alliance made up of reformed communists and disaffected social democrats.
Angela Merkel was embarrassed by Edmund Stoiber's comments
"It's a pity people in other parts of the country are not as clever as in Bavaria" he said, referring to his own regional stronghold.
The remarks, widely seen as "Ossie-bashing", caused a storm of indignation, and are expected to cost the CDU dear in eastern Germany.
Mrs Merkel, herself from the east, said the comments were "counterproductive" and that she wanted to be a chancellor for all Germans.
When she officially launched her campaign last week she made it clear she wanted to focus on different issues.
"I find it depressing that we have nearly five million unemployed," she said.
"In the 1998 election campaign the current chancellor said he wanted to be judged on this issue alone.
"If he didn't reduce unemployment he didn't deserve to be re-elected. And I think this issue is exactly what he should be judged on."
Unfortunately for Mrs Merkel, the speech was hardly reported in the German media. It was overshadowed by Mr Stoiber's remarks.