Armin Laschet, the conservatives' candidate to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel, went on the offensive in the first major prime-time TV debate Sunday in a battle to save his ailing campaign less than a month before elections.
The 60-year-old leader of Merkel's CDU-CSU alliance had gone into the election race with a comfortable lead over his rivals from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens.
But several missteps in recent weeks have left his popularity in the doldrums and support for his party slipping just as Merkel is due to bow out of politics after 16 years as German leader.
Instead, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who was largely written off by many at the beginning of the campaign, given lacklustre support for his SPD, has sprung forward in the race.
The 63-year-old has also overtaken the leader of the Greens, Annalena Baerbock, as she stumbled too from a series of scandals including plagiarism claims.
A poll published by Bild am Sonntag newspaper just hours before Sunday's TV battle showed support for Scholz's SPD climbing to 24 percent. The CDU-CSU alliance meanwhile sank to its all-time worst score at 21 percent. The Greens were at steady 17 percent.
Laschet acknowledged the poor showing in the polls but sought to sell his party to Germans as the face of stability.
"I have always felt headwinds. Even now," he said, but added that "in such moments we need steadfastness, reliability".
"That is the offer of the (CDU-CSU) — stability and reliability in difficult times," he said.
But viewers appeared unmoved.
A poll commissioned by broadcaster RTL of 2,500 viewers found 36 percent saying they felt Scholz won the television debate.
Some 30 percent plumped for Baerbock while only 25 percent were in favour of Laschet's performance.
Laschet, currently state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, saw the tide turn against him during the deadly floods that struck western Germany in mid-July.
Caught on camera chuckling behind in the background with local officials while Germany's president gave a speech mourning victims of deadly floods, Laschet has since been unable to halt a falling trend in popularity.
Going on the attack on Sunday, Laschet sought to call out the SPD's refusal so far to rule out a coalition with the far-left Linke party.
But Scholz would not be drawn, saying only that his party would not sign up to a coalition with a party that did not make a clear commitment to NATO.
Laschet also blasted Merkel's coalition, of which Scholz's party is a junior partner, over the situation in Afghanistan.
"It is a disaster... a disaster for the West but also a disaster for the government," he said, noting that it was already clear by April that the US was pulling out of Afghanistan but that too little was done to prevent the frantic evacuations seen in recent days.
Observers said Scholz had steered well away from mistakes, giving him an edge over his gaffe-prone challengers.
"Like no other of his competitors, he has embodied the statesman in the election battle, the one who finds the right words, be it during the flood disaster in July or about the terrible images that have reached us from Afghanistan," noted right-leaning Welt daily.
It also pointed out that for those longing for a continuation of Merkel's style of no-frills but steady government may have picked Scholz as their choice.
Even if they hail from different parties, Scholz himself is not shy about letting a bit of the shine from the still popular Merkel rub off on him.
"It is never bad for a man to be compared with a successful chancellor," he said in a recent interview with Sueddeutsche daily.
Asked who they prefer as a chancellor, Germans have in polls given Scholz a commanding lead over Laschet and Baerbock.
Underlining the seriousness of the situation for Merkel's conservatives, which have led four consecutive coalitions, Sueddeutsche said the CDU-CSU "will have to fight at the moment to be even in a position to be in negotiations for the next government".
"At the CDU headquarters, they are now placing their hopes on the three-way debate of the chancellor candidates," it said.