Gaffe-prone Merkel rival drags down centre-left as vote looms

Thu Jan 17, 2013 7:02am EST
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By Erik Kirschbaum

OSTERHOLZ-SCHARMBECK, Germany (Reuters) - Peer Steinbrueck looked uncomfortable as he waited to go onstage at a small-town rally for a regional election on Sunday that could make or break his ambitions to be Germany's next leader.

No one was talking to the Social Democrat (SPD) candidate for chancellor, whose blunders have sent his party into a tailspin in national opinion polls and could drag Stephan Weil, SPD candidate for state premier in Lower Saxony, to an unexpected defeat on Sunday.

As Weil chatted and laughed with former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and ex-foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Steinbrueck put his hands in his pockets and searched in vain for someone to talk to before the four marched into the hall.

Steinbrueck spoke for just 10 minutes, while the other SPD leaders hogged the stage - or perhaps just helped the gaffe-prone Steinbrueck from scoring more own goals.

In the four months since the SPD picked him to run against Angela Merkel, the party's poll ratings have tumbled so far it could cost Weil what was once seen as certain victory.

The 66-year-old former finance minister has become a liability after airing his opinion that chancellors are underpaid and women like Merkel have an unfair advantage in politics due to their gender.

One national poll this week showed the SPD falling 20 points behind Merkel's conservatives to 23 percent, an 18-month low. In Lower Saxony, the SPD is about seven points behind the Christian Democrats (CDU), but Weil is still in the race thanks to his allies the Greens, who put the combined center left neck-and-neck with the CDU and their Free Democrat (FDP) partners.

In Osterholz-Scharmbeck, a working class town of 30,000 near the Dutch border, Steinbrueck got a polite but cool reception, while Schroeder, Steinmeier and Weil enjoyed hearty cheers.   Continued...

Peer Steinbrueck, Social Demrocratic top candidate for the 2013 German general election speaks during a debate about the European banking union in the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, in Berlin, January 17, 2013. REUTERS/Thomas Peter