BERLIN - Three weeks before German elections, Chancellor Angela Merkel calmly pointed at her record Sunday in steering Europe's top economy safely through the eurozone crisis, in the only TV debate with her centre-left rival.
Social Democrat Peer Steinbrueck meanwhile outlined his vision of a more socially just Germany and for more solidarity within Europe, without however landing rhetorical blows that looked likely to close a yawning poll gap.
Merkel, often voted Germany's most popular politician, pointed to economic growth and low unemployment, and sought to reassure millions of voters that if she wins a third term, Germany will stay in safe hands.
"Germany is an engine of growth, an anchor for stability," said Merkel, wearing a necklace with the national colours black, red and gold which was hotly debated in a Twitter conversation. "We have shown that we can do it - in difficult times," she said.
An initial poll by the Forsa institute for RTL television declared Merkel the debate winner with a narrow 44-43 per cent lead. However, ARD public television poll said Steinbrueck was more convincing, by a margin of 49-44 per cent.
Top-selling newspaper Bild said in an online commentary that both candidates looked good, judging the outcome as "Steinbrueck strong, Merkel sovereign". News site Spiegel online less kindly gave the outcome of the football-match length debate a "zero-zero".
Merkel also highlighted that her government was reducing public debt and said that her tough line of demanding reforms from troubled eurozone economies in return for bailout cash had shown first signs of success.
Steinbrueck's central charge was that Merkel commonly employs a dithering wait-and-see attitude - in the energy shift out of nuclear to renewable energy, or in clarifying the US online snooping scandal - and had brought the national leadership to a "standstill".
Merkel acidly told her rival - who has got in trouble for a series of gaffes but prides himself on his 'straight-talk' - that "I do not act first and then think. I do the reverse: I think, then I decide and then I act."
Steinbrueck said that the number of working poor had risen steeply in Germany and pushed his demand for an 8.50 euro (S$14) minimum hourly wage as well as other help for families, from more child care places to higher pensions.
For Europe, Steinbrueck - who served as Merkel's first-term finance minister in a left-right 'grand coalition' cabinet - called for "a second Marshall plan" in which Germany, the continent's main paymaster, could repay some of the solidarity it was shown after World War II.
Until the TV debate, which was broadcast on five channels, Merkel, 59, had refused to directly engage or even mention by name her challenger, many of whose party policies she has quietly adopted over the years.
Merkel, often described as a "presidential" chancellor, has been so far ahead in the polls that at one stage she was asked whether she felt sorry for her challenger and replied that "Steinbrueck really does not need my pity".
A poll Sunday gave Merkel's conservatives 39 per cent of the vote - a significant lead over the combined totals of 23 per cent for the SPD and 11 per cent for the centre-left party's preferred allies the Greens.
Merkel's current coalition partner, the Free Democrats (FDP), scored six per cent, according to the Emnid Institute survey for Bild am Sonntag newspaper. Merkel said that she would like to continue that coalition, and that the FDP has her "very greatest confidence".
Observers have also considered that a tight election outcome would make another grand coalition likely. Steinbrueck has said he would not personally be part of such a government.
On foreign affairs, both candidates agreed that Germany would play no part in any military attack against Syria in response to the regime's alleged poison gas attacks and stressed the role of the international community in legitimising any action.
On the US NSA spying scandal, Steinbrueck reiterated his charge that Merkel had failed to protect the German people's civil rights, and praised fugitive intelligence leaker Edward Snowden for his "civil courage".
Despite what was at stake in the debate, both candidates avoided ugly personal attacks and steered clear of blunders.
"Merkel and her challenger have survived the TV debate as expected, and neither embarrassed themselves," commented the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
"Victory and defeat in such cases are a matter of interpretation - unless one follows the thesis that for Steinbrueck, considering the poll figures, anything but a universally perceived victory must be judged a defeat."