* Lone TV duel comes three weeks before German election
* No clear winner in debate between Merkel and Steinbrueck
* Challenger calls chancellor's euro policies "failure"
* Merkel's conservatives far ahead of rival SPD in polls
By Noah Barkin and Stephen Brown
BERLIN, Sept 1 Chancellor Angela Merkel and her
Social Democrat challenger in this month's German election
clashed over the euro, tax policy and U.S. spying in a
television debate on Sunday that produced no clear winner.
The only TV duel of the campaign, watched by an estimated 15
million viewers, was one of SPD candidate Peer Steinbrueck's
last chances to change the momentum in a race in which he has
trailed the popular Merkel from the very start.
He accused the conservative chancellor, who is seeking a
third term in the Sept. 22 vote, of crushing southern European
countries with austerity, failing to properly manage an exit
from nuclear energy and overseeing a rise in low wage jobs.
"For four years we have been at a standstill. I want to
change this," Steinbrueck said.
Merkel, 59, said SPD plans to raise taxes would put
Germany's prosperity at risk, and noted that Steinbrueck's party
had supported her euro policies throughout the crisis. Smiling,
she turned to him and said: "You voted for everything."
Dressed in black, both candidates appeared relaxed, made no
obvious gaffes and apppeared to have good grasp of the issues.
Merkel, wearing a twisty necklace in the colours of the
German flag, turned often to speak directly to her challenger,
while Steinbrueck stared straight ahead at the panel of four
questioners, which included cult talk show host Stefan Raab.
A poll by Infratest Dimap conducted after the debate gave
Steinbrueck the edge, with 49 percent of respondents saying he
won and 44 percent backing Merkel. Another poll by Forsa put
Merkel slightly ahead, 44 versus 43 percent.
The 66-year-old former finance minister is known for his
quick wit, but also for a know-it-all tone that can make him
seem arrogant. His challenge in the debate was to criticise
Merkel's policies without appearing overly aggressive, and in
that he largely succeeded.
"Steinbrueck may have added a few points," said political
scientist Juergen Falter. "The question is whether it is enough
to mobilise voters for the SPD."
Some of the sharpest clashes came on the subject of Europe,
a topic that had played only a small role in the campaign until
a debate flared late last month over whether Greece might
require a third bailout after the German vote.
Steinbrueck dismissed Merkel's European policy as a
"failure" because of continued recession and sky-high
unemployment in the southern euro countries that have had to
swallow deep spending cuts in exchange for bailouts.
"I would have followed a different crisis strategy. Of
course there must be budget consolidation in these countries,
but not a deadly dose," Steinbrueck said.
"Germany once got help too and we must not forget that," he
said. "Germany was massively helped after the Second World War
with the Marshall Plan."
Merkel retorted that it was under SPD chancellor Gerhard
Schroeder that Greece had been allowed to join the euro in the
"As chancellor I have a responsibility to ensure the reform
pressure on Greece does not let up," she said. "There could be a
new Greek package but nobody knows how big it will be."
With three weeks to go until the vote, a survey from Emnid
published on Sunday showed Merkel's conservative bloc -- the
Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union
(CSU) -- with a 16 point lead over Steinbrueck's SPD.
The size of the gap means it is highly likely that Merkel
will remain chancellor after the election. What is less certain
is whether she will win enough votes to continue her
centre-right coalition with the business-friendly Free Democrats
Should she fall short, she will be forced into difficult
coalition talks with the SPD, with whom she ruled between 2005
and 2009. Steinbrueck was finance minister in this right-left
"grand coalition", but he has ruled out serving under Merkel a
FOUR GOOD YEARS
One of the reasons Steinbrueck has struggled to make a dent
in Merkel's popularity is that the German economy has performed
better than its European peers during the euro crisis, with
unemployment now hovering near its lowest levels since
reunification in 1990.
"We have had four good years for Germany and I want the next
four years to be good as well," she said.
But Steinbrueck stressed that not everyone was prospering,
with 7 million people earning less than the 8.50 euro per hour
minimum wage that his party wants to introduce, funded by income
tax increases for Germans earning above 100,000 euros annually.
"The tax hike plans of the Social Democrats and the Greens
bring with them the risk that we spoil the good situation that
we have instead of improving it," Merkel responded.
The candidates also touched on Syria, ruling out German
participation in a military intervention that would be deeply
Steinbrueck suggested that Merkel had not reacted forcefully
enough to revelations of U.S. and British surveillance which
have touched a nerve in a country still haunted by domestic
spying under the Nazis and East German Stasi secret police.
The last two German debates, in 2009 and 2005, had little
impact on the election result.
But in the 2002 clash, Schroeder came from behind to win
re-election after wrong-footing conservative Edmund Stoiber on
his support for the looming U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.