World and Nation

Debate revives Merkel’s rival as credible challenger

BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democratic challenger, Peer Steinbrück, returned to the campaign trail on Monday, with neither triumphant after their sole television debate, a mostly decorous 90-minute exchange that restored Steinbrück as a credible candidate but yielded a rhetorical draw.

Perhaps reflecting the flickering interest stirred by the largely predictable positions taken by both leaders, commentary focused on what the Berlin tabloid B.Z. called the two winners in the TV duel: Raab and Merkel’s necklace.

The reference was first to Stefan Raab, a television entertainer whose inclusion in the normally serious lineup of four moderators at the debate on Sunday night was much remarked and delivered the liveliest exchange of the evening. Raab pushed Steinbrück hard for guidance for those Germans — and polls suggest their number is considerable — who want to see a “grand coalition” of the Social Democrats with Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats after the Sept. 22 elections.

Steinbrück, 66, who served as finance minister in Merkel’s first government, a grand coalition from 2005 to 2009, has already said he will not head up the Social Democrats in such a Cabinet now. Flustered, he eventually told Raab that voters should go with the center-left.

For her part, Merkel, 59, has carefully ducked controversy so far on the campaign trail, even over the allegations that U.S. intelligence spied on the communications of millions of Germans. And until the debate, she had studiously ignored Steinbrück by not mentioning his name.

So perhaps the most overt excitement she garnered on Sunday was for her necklace, consisting of long beads of black, red and gold, the colors of the German flag.

In the European mold of politicians who hone their skills and policy knowledge over decades, Steinbrück, a Social Democrat for 44 years and a former governor of Germany’s largest state, and Merkel, in politics since 1990 and now seeking a third four-year term as chancellor, found support in their own camps on Monday.

For Jakob Augstein, a Merkel critic who writes a column for Der Spiegel, Steinbrück, who stumbled early after his nomination last autumn over disclosures that he had received large fees for lectures and writing, showed that “he can do it.”

“On Sunday,” Augstein wrote in an online commentary, “we saw a tired chancellor who looked somewhat uninterested.”

By contrast, he said, the Social Democrat was “a lively challenger, eager to attack.”

Reflecting the maxim that all politics is local, it took more than an hour before the candidates discussed international issues like the allegations of U.S. spying or the Syrian government’s possible use of chemical weapons against thousands of civilians.

Merkel’s government has ruled out participation in any military response.