Germany's Schroeder, Merkel square off in key television debate

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder reminded Germans of his opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq while challenger Angela Merkel zeroed in on high unemployment Sunday in their only head-to-head televised debate, two weeks ahead of the Sept. 18 election.

Schroeder, needing a knockout punch with his Social Democrats trailing Merkel's Christian Democrats by a double-digit margin, launched straight into a defense of his welfare-state and labor-market reforms. He also immediately sought to score points with his popular opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

He also claimed credit for "a foreign policy that has positioned Germany abroad as a middle-sized power for peace _ which contributed, and I had to take some criticism for that, to keeping Germany out of the Iraq war, for example."

Merkel shot back with a barb at Schroeder's struggles over the past two years to overcome resistance within his Social Democrats to his limited reform drive, which she proposes extending.

A poll of 1,276 people carried out for ARD television after the debate found that 49 percent believed Schroeder _ a seasoned television performer _ fared better overall, against 33 percent for Merkel. The channel cautioned that the result was in line with expectations and could not be translated into voting intentions.

Experts have argued that Sunday's debate _ the only one-on-one encounter of the campaign _ could help determine what coalition emerges from the election, AP reports.

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