German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her challenger emerged from their only television debate two weeks before elections much as they entered it – seeming more comfortable working together than fighting each other.
Polls taken after the 90-minute debate found neither Ms Merkel nor her centre-left challenger Frank-Walter Steinmeier pulling off a decisive win.
RTL put Ms Merkel ahead by a 37-35% margin, while ARD gave Mr Steinmeier a narrow 43-42% win.
Neither candidate appeared interested in aggressively sparring with the other and the face-off – in which four TV reporters posed questions to the candidates - lacked passion or personal attacks from either side.
“It almost leaves you yearning for a (Nicolas) Sarkozy or a (Silvio) Berlusconi,” leading German theatre director Claus Peymann said afterward on ARD, referring to the French president and Italian prime minister.
Ms Merkel argued the country needs a new centre-right government to boost Europe’s biggest economy and create more jobs as Germany emerges from recession.
Mr Steinmeier, trailing in overall polls before the September 27 vote, portrayed himself as a champion of “social balance” and said a shift to the right would mean a growing gap between rich and poor.
Ms Merkel, a conservative, was looking to strengthen her chances of ending an awkward “grand coalition” with Mr Steinmeier’s Social Democrats.
In a second term, she aims to form a new centre-right government with a pro-business opposition party, the Free Democrats.
“This ’grand coalition’ has worked well under my leadership,” Ms Merkel said, pointing to a decline in unemployment since she took office in 2005.
“But I think that we pursue this course with more determination ... and so I am campaigning for a new government,” she said.
“The ’grand coalition’ did great work and now – in the most serious crisis since the ’30s – we really need a determined policy for more work.”
Mr Steinmeier, Ms Merkel’s foreign minister and vice chancellor, also praised the coalition’s work, but insisted it “fell short of its possibilities” because Ms Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union failed to support centre-left proposals such as the introduction of a minimum wage.
He pushed that call, arguing that a “downward wage spiral” in Germany must be stopped. Ms Merkel said a one-size-fits-all minimum wage would mean jobs lost, and argued for each industry to set its own minimum.
Ms Merkel is pledging tax relief, at an unspecified point. She argued that that would motivate people and stimulate growth to pull Germany out of its worst economic crisis since the 1930s.
The key question is “how do we get out of this valley as fast as possible?” Ms Merkel said. “For me, a three-word sentence is the credo: growth creates jobs.”
Mr Steinmeier was quick to counter, however, that with the government racking up big debts to deal with the crisis, “that isn’t possible.”
A centre-right government “will mean that those who helped cause the crisis are not made responsible for its costs; (it) will mean that the gap between poor and rich grows; (it) will mean that there is a return to nuclear power,” he said.
Both candidates defended the decision to offer billions in credit to help a Canadian-Russian consortium buy a majority in car manufacturer Opel from General Motors Co.
“A company that builds great cars has been given a chance,” said Ms Merkel.