With less than two weeks to go before the German election, the two main rivals have faced off in a heated US-style television debate.
According to snap surveys, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder did better than his conservative challenger Angela Merkel but is unlikely to have significantly dented her lead in the polls.
She made much of her opponent’s mixed record on the economy, telling him:
“You cannot seriously say you are satisfied with the current state of affairs. We have five million unemployed!”
He replied: “That is true but the image that foreign countries have of Germany is much better than the image we have of ourselves. That is something I have to change.”
Merkel warmed to one of her main campaign themes – equal opportunities for men and women. She said more needed to be done to nurture the careers of mothers without harming the development of their children.
“I think a female chancellor would set a good example,” she said.
Schroeder reacted sharply to a question about an article written by his wife, who is a journalist, which attacked Merkel.
“It is my wife’s right to express her opinion and I think Mrs Merkel can take criticism,” he retorted.
There was a clash when one of the moderators asked whether the US government had mishandled aid to the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
“I think it is right that the German government and the regions are offering their help to the Americans,” Merkel responded.
“The pictures we have seen from there are truly appalling.”
The moderator said to the chancellor: “You have a different opinion, don’t you?”
Schroeder replied: “First of all, Mrs Merkel has not answered the question. The president of the United States himself has recognised that the way aid was organised was unacceptable.
“Mrs Merkel could have had the courage to say that. It is not a criticism of President Bush to question the relief operation,” he continued.