VIENNA — Austria’s general election campaign is heating up: Two high-profile contenders have gone way beyond rolling up their shirt sleeves — they’ve taken their shirts right off.
Borrowing a page from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s playbook, the beefcake displays are the latest twist in the rivalry between populist candidate Frank Stronach and Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the anti-immigrant and EU-skeptic Freedom Party.
The two are both seeking the protest vote in Austria’s Sept. 29 election.
Stronach was first to doff his shirt. Wearing jeans and a smile, he revealed a trim 80-year-old upper body as he stood next to his private lake during weekend interviews with Austrian dailies.
Strache responded immediately. A photo of the tanned and athletic 42-year-old clad in swimming trunks appeared Sunday on his Facebook page, with the caption ‘‘top fit in the election campaign!’’
The bare-chest battle went into round two on Monday, with Austria’s major newspapers carrying both photos — along with articles debating whether such displays constituted below-the-belt campaigning. The photos reappeared Tuesday.
The tabloid Oesterreich praised Stronach for ‘‘showing the new self-confidence of the generation ‘60 plus.’ In politics. In fitness. In looks.’’ At the same time, it warned that Strache’s decision to challenge Stronach ‘‘with his fitness-center muscles’’ risks turning the campaign into a circus.
Andreas Schieder, a leading Socialist official, urged both men to focus on the politics of ‘‘naked facts, instead of naked upper bodies.’’