Her offense was wearing jeans and listening to Western music. As a gesture of protest, when her classmates sang the "Internationale"--the global socialist anthem--she sang it in English, not German or Russian. As it was, she was a Lutheran pastor's daughter and practicing Christian. In communist East Germany, that was enough for even a 12th-grade science whiz to get a visit from the dreaded Stasi, or secret police. Eventually she was barred from teaching, her chosen profession.

Today there are no more bars to Angela Merkel's rise. The 50-year-old leader of Germany's conservative Christian Democrats is poised to replace Gerhard Schroeder as the country's chancellor in less than four months, if elections proceed as planned. Though his term isn't up until 2006, an embattled Schroeder called an early vote after his party, the left-wing Social Democrats, suffered crushing defeats in two regional elections. Germans are largely fed up with Schroeder's seven-year record: 12 percent unemployment, two recessions and a series of unpopular welfare cuts. Last week, as her party formally nominated Merkel in Berlin, pollsters gave her a formidable 20-point lead.

Merkel's career has been spectacular and unusual. It wasn't until she was 35, in the heady days of German reunification, that she left her job as a quantum physicist at East Berlin's Academy of Sciences and stumbled into politics. Until then, she'd struck friends as "apolitical and disillusioned," says Michael Schindhelm, a former Academy colleague. Joining the fledgling democratic movement in 1989, she soon became a protege of then Chancellor Helmut Kohl. "You're crazy," she said when an associate told her Kohl wanted to include her in his cabinet just a few months later. Rising to Environment minister, she made no waves but quickly learned the ropes. In 2000, amid a party slush-fund scandal, she helped bring down her mentor, Kohl, and took over the party leadership. Since then, she's had a reputation for cold calculation.

What would a Merkel victory mean for America? While Schroeder spent his formative years protesting U.S. "imperialism" in Vietnam, Merkel is grateful to America for helping defeat communism. "She has a completely different emotional connection to America," says Peter Hintze, a leading Christian Democrat M.P. and early Merkel ally. On Iraq, she was one of the few German politicians to publicly support George W. Bush, fully aware that almost 90 percent of the public--including much of her own party--were strongly opposed to the war. She has ruled out sending German soldiers--already stretched thin in Afghanistan and Kosovo--but has promised more German help training Iraqi forces. Having lived through the collapse of communism, she is not afraid of radical transformation. Already, Merkel has proposed sweeping changes to curb unions, slash subsidies and cut and simplify taxes. If she succeeds in getting Germany back on track--and as the continent's biggest economy goes, so goes Europe--that would be in America's interests too.