Two weeks ahead of national elections, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his conservative challenger, Angela Merkel, met for a TV debate Sunday. They largely focused on domestic rather than foreign policy issues.
Germany's four major channels televised the debate
With an estimated 15 million Germans following the debate on Germany's four major TV channels, an aggressive Merkel seemed eager to make up for her disadvantage of entering the duel in second place: Polls had shown that most people expected Schröder to win the debate.
Sticking largely to domestic issues such as taxes, pensions and Germany's high unemployment levels, Merkel continually returned to her Christian Democratic Union's message that only it can get Germany's 4.7 million unemployed back to work.
"We are campaigning for a total change of policy," she said, defending the radical tax reform laid out by her financial advisor, Paul Kirchhof.
Schröder countered that Germans must not become "guinea pigs" for Kirchhof's ideas.
It was wrong to ask "millionaires and nurses" to pay the same amount of tax, he added.
Schröder and Merkel also briefly touched on disaster management in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in the US.
While Merkel refused to comment on the issue, however, Schröder said that US President George W. Bush himself had described the slow relief effort as "unacceptable." The chancellor added that Germany had handled catastrophic situations in a timelier manner in the past.
National Guard members carry an injured man to an awaiting helicopter near the New Orleans Superdome
"It shows that you need a strong state for people in need, not a weak state," Schröder said. "The structures that we have here work."
Turkey , e n ergy issues
Turkey's bid for EU membership also became an issue. While Merkel reiterated her view that Turkey could not become a full member of the union and should instead be invited to a "privileged partnership," Schröder accused his challenger of failing to see the importance of integrating an Islamic country into the EU.
Germany's Stade nuclear plant has already been shut down.
Merkel also said that she saw nuclear energy as part of a mix that was necessary to ensure Germany's power supply. Schröder's red-green coalition has decided to phase out nuclear energy completely.
What ki n d of coalitio n ?
Early polls of German television viewers said Schröder was more convincing, with his challenger polling around half his score.
But Merkel, bidding to become Germany's first woman leader, appeared more assured in front of the cameras than many observers had predicted.
While the debate is unlikely to affect Merkel's strong chance of becoming Germany's first woman chancellor, analysts said it could tip the scales for the coalition she is able to form.
Merkel with her dream coalition partners, the CSU's Edmund Stoiber (left) and the FDP's Guido Westerwelle.
"It will go right down to the wire on whether black-yellow manages to win on Sept. 18," said the director of independent polling institute Infratest-dimap, Reinhard Hilmer, referring to the party colors of Merkel's favored coalition comprising her Christian Union alliance and the free-market liberal Free Democrats (FDP).
"That is why the TV debate could be decisive," he told the Sunday newspaper Bild am So n n tag.
A seco n d duel
A poll released Friday by public television network ZDF showed the Christian Union (CDU/CSU) with 43 percent support and the FDP with 7 percent -- just enough to give them a governing majority.
But even a slight shift away from either party could put the country on the road to a "grand coalition" featuring the CDU/CSU and Schröder's Social Democrats, which tallied 32 percent in the ZDF poll.
Merkel and Schröder will face each other a second time, albeit not in a one-on-one duel, during a debate on Sept. 12 that also includes the leaders from Germany's three other major parties.