Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader and chancellor candidate Armin Laschet reacts as he addresses a congress of the CDU's sister party Christian Social Union CSU in Nuremberg, southern Germany, on September 11, 2021. AFP
A televised election debate on Sunday marks one of the last chances for Germany's struggling chancellor candidate Armin Laschet, from Angela Merkel's conservative camp, to close the gap with his centre-left rival.
Two weeks before voters head to the polls, gaffe-prone Laschet will face off against Finance Minister Olaf Scholz from the Social Democrats (SPD) and Annalena Baerbock from the left-leaning Greens in the second of three primetime debates.
The first general election of the post-Merkel era has become an unexpected nailbiter in Europe's top economy.
Surveys show support for Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc plummeting to historic lows of around 20 percent while the SPD has come from behind to lead at around 26 percent.
With the Greens polling at 15 percent, a number of coalition outcomes are possible -- but observers say the chances of one-time frontrunner Laschet taking the crown are fading fast.
Bild newspaper said the debate could be make-or-break for Laschet.
"To turn the tide, he needs a clear success," it wrote.
Viewers were left unconvinced by Laschet's performance in the first debate last month, when Scholz was declared the winner.
Laschet, the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia state, has been on a downward spiral following a series of missteps, including being caught on camera laughing during a tribute to victims of Germany's deadly floods in July.
Scholz meanwhile, although often described as wooden and uncharismatic, has run an error-free campaign.
As vice-chancellor and guardian of the nation's finances, the 63-year-old has positioned himself as the continuity candidate and the natural heir to Merkel's legacy -- despite hailing from a rival party.
The CDU/CSU alliance that has dominated Germany's post-war politics now faces a "historic debacle" on September 26, Der Spiegel weekly news magazine wrote.
In a sign of growing nervousness, conservatives have gone on the attack against Scholz, accusing him of riding on Merkel's coat-tails and of trying to steer Germany to the left.
Even Merkel, who is bowing out after 16 years in power and had vowed to stay out of the election battle, has joined the fray.
She visited a flood-hit region with Laschet and used a speech in parliament this week to cast him as the best choice to succeed her, saying he stood for "stability" and "centrism".
The still immensely popular chancellor also distanced herself from Scholz, criticising him for not unequivocally ruling out a coalition with the radical-left Linke party, which wants to disband NATO.
The Linke is currently polling at six percent and could theoretically be part of a three-way coalition with the SPD and the Greens.
Addressing a congress of the CSU on Saturday, Laschet said such a coalition would lead to "less security" and endanger Germany's economic growth through higher taxes and more bureaucracy.
Laschet, 60, also courted controversy by saying that the Social Democrats were "on the wrong side" at key moments in Germany's post-war history.
The remark drew an immediate rebuke from the SPD, which said it revealed Laschet's "panic" at his slump in the polls.
SPD general-secretary Lars Klingbeil said the CDU/CSU alliance had "lost its dignity under Laschet", adding: "It belongs in the opposition."
Laschet has played down the importance of Sunday's debate, saying the battle for the chancellery would be fought until polling day.
But Laschet's fate could be sealed sooner, with record numbers expected to vote by post because of the pandemic.
Although Laschet has a track record of snatching unexpected last-minute victories, Spiegel said a typical Laschet comeback "is looking unlikely".