GERMANY - German Chancellor Angela Merkel has launched the final and most gruelling phase of her general election campaign after the only national televised debate between her and the leader of Germany's Social Democrat opposition ended inconclusively, with neither rival candidate landing a knockout punch.
According to all opinion polls, Dr Merkel and her centre-right Christian Democrats remain far ahead of all their rivals for the ballots scheduled on Sept 22. But due to Germany's complicated electoral system, the Chancellor has to fight for every vote; even a fraction of 1 per cent in the final tally could decide whether she wins a third term.
In a country where political gimmicks are frowned upon and electoral campaigns largely consist of carefully choreographed rallies and fairly uninspired posters, the single televised debate between the top candidates has long been one of the key highlights.
The live confrontation between Dr Merkel and Mr Peer Steinbrueck, her Social Democrat challenger, was watched on Sunday night by an estimated 20 million Germans, about a quarter of the nation.
The traditional debate is when political careers are made. A young Helmut Kohl, who went on to be one of Germany's greatest leaders, is still remembered for his single devastating quip during his first televised debate in the early 1980s when he famously asked his rival who talked non-stop to "give children in kindergartens a good example" by shutting up.
No such gems were on offer this time, notwithstanding the fact that Mr Steinbrueck is known for his sharp tongue, and that this was his biggest chance to claw back Dr Merkel's lead in the opinion polls.
The opposition leader drew blood by attacking the Chancellor's management of the euro financial crisis, accusing her of imposing austerity on Europe which created a "vicious circle of recession".
But that won't impress German voters who, if anything, believe that their Chancellor was too lenient on her bankrupt European neighbours.