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Japan's Abe attracts crowds, but no pop star fever

Written by: Staff

TOKYO, Sep 9 (Reuters) The scene was all too familiar. A crowd of thousands thronged a Tokyo intersection to hear a popular lawmaker on his way to becoming Japan's next prime minister.

But missing today when Shinzo Abe appeared at the first stumping event since the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) kicked off its campaign to find a new leader, was the pop star fever that greeted Junichiro Koizumi five years ago when he won the race and became prime minister.

Abe, a 51-year-old cabinet minister, looks sure to win the Sept.

20 election for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president, given the overwhelming support he enjoys among its lawmakers and rank-and-file members.

The new LDP president is all but certain to become the prime minister given the party's grip on parliament.

Public opinion polls have for months shown that Abe is also by far the voters' preferred candidate to succeed Koizumi when he steps down this month.

''There's a feeling that the game's already been decided,'' said kindergarten teacher Minako Morita, after she heard Abe and his two rivals speak in Tokyo's Akihabara district, famous for its electronics shops and more recently known as the mecca of Japan's ''otaku'' or nerd subculture.

''There's no fever,'' said the 42-year-old.

This is in stark contrast to the LDP race five years ago when the telegenic Koizumi captivated the country with his ''Change the LDP, Change Japan'' slogan and went on to win the contest riding on a groundswell of public support.

''It's been quite a while since I started thinking that Abe would be the next prime minister,'' said Kazuaki Hirata, who runs a machinery maintenance firm.

''The rails are laid out for him already. He's just running on them,'' said the 37-year-old, who stopped to listen to the candidates while shopping for electronic goods.

Speaking atop a campaign van, Abe reiterated his policies -- to be bold in diplomacy and to continue economic reforms -- along with his slogan of ''building a beautiful Japan''.

He clearly attracted the biggest audience as more people took his picture with their camera-equipped mobile phones than when his rivals -- Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki -- spoke.

But those who favour Abe said it was not his policies, but image, that led them to support him.

''I'm not quite sure, but I guess it's his image, the air about him,'' said Yoko Sakuragi, a 32-year-old working for a steel firm, who was visiting Akihabara with a friend.

''It's like buying an electronic appliance. You buy it because of the image, because it's popular with other people.'' REUTERS PDM PM1801

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