With five days to before Germany elects a new government, both Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and opposition frontrunner Angela Merkel are confident they can gain a majority and avoid a so-called grand coalition.
Some commentators believe the campaign is turning into a circus
With polls showing the conservative opposition's once commanding lead eroding, the possibility is growing that Sunday's election will produce an awkward marriage of Schröder's Social Democrats and Merkel's Christian Democrats.
Neither party wants such an outcome and, in their last face-to-face meeting before the election, their leaders insisted on Monday their respective coalitions would win.
"There will not be a grand coalition," Merkel said during the round-table debate on German public broadcaster ARD. "Unlike the chancellor, I don't place great store in opinion polls."
Merkel said voters could opt for the country's economic standstill to continue or "if they want a future, they can choose the option we are offering" -- a campaign based on creating jobs, partly funded by a 2 percent rise in national sales tax.
Schröder and Merkel during the debate
Schröder said he was "very optimistic that we will finish in front." He added he believed an increasing number of voters were satisfied that the existing coalition of Social Democrats and Greens had shown that "reform is possible without abandoning social cohesion, that a sensitive approach to the ecology is possible in mainstream politics and that Germany can do it all it can to solve conflicts peacefully," a reference to his refusal to send troops to the Iraq war.
Economy and taxes
Like the head-to-head TV duel between Schröder and Merkel eight days earlier that had given the Social Democrats a boost in the polls, the debate of six party leaders was dominated by the economy and tax policy.
Schröder rounded on the proposals of Merkel's shadow finance minister Paul Kirchhof (photo) to introduce a flat tax rate of 25 percent.
"It is completely unfair that a bus driver will pay as much as a millionaire," Schröder said.
Merkel hit back that the flat tax proposal was not in the Christian Democrats' election manifesto and, in an escalation of the tone between the two leaders, accused Schröder of "polemic unworthy of a chancellor."
She said Kirchhof would be finance minister "if the voters allowed it."
Schröder defended his unpopular economic reform program and said that his government had had to deal with an exceptional set of external factors, including record oil prices, which he partly blamed for unemployment rising to around five million during his seven years in charge.
Merkel countered that Germany's European neighbors had been faced with the same problems but they had succeeded in creating jobs and economic growth.
Schröder's secret list?
"Schröder for Germany," reads the campaign poster
Schröder was also forced to deny that he was concealing a list of hitherto unannounced cuts which media reports say form part of a secret 30-billion-euro ($36.8-billion) package of savings he will unleash if re-elected.
He accused the opposition of dirty tricks, suggesting "finance ministry officials with Christian Democratic sympathies" had cooked up the list.
Earlier on Monday, the Christian Democrats had announced a shift in their election strategy in a bid to persuade voters of the danger that the Social Democrats and Greens would be prepared to join forces with Germany's new Left Party that is made up of the successor party to the former East German communist party and disgruntled Social Democrats. But Schröder has ruled out a coalition with the new force on the left.
Turn off the TV?
Commentators didn't seem too impressed with the debate, however.
"It was the worst election TV program so far," wrote the Berliner Zeitung in an editorial on Tuesday, adding that the debate still had its positive aspects.
"It showed something that's usually hidden behind strict timing and short questions: clueslessness," the paper went on. "This last week of the campaign is about feelings and mood, not politics and arguments. Anyone who has made his election decision should not subject himself to this and switch off the TV."
Angela Merkel in front of an "Angie" poster
A poll released on Monday showed that a coalition of the Christian Democrats and their preferred partners, the Free Democrats, would score a combined 48 percent, just short of the 48.5 percent necessary for a governing majority.
Yet an alliance of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party would amass a winning 49 percent, according to the Forsa poll for Stern magazine and private broadcaster RTL.