Schroeder edges Merkel but no knock-out blow

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder beat his conservative rival Angela Merkel in a feisty U.S.-style TV debate on Sunday but may not have delivered the knock-out blow needed to catch her in the polls, surveys showed.

Schroeder, a charismatic speaker who had been favoured to win the 90-minute clash against his less experienced opponent, was on the defensive at the outset as Merkel attacked him for presiding over a rise in unemployment to post-war highs.

But Schroeder, dapper in a black suit and red-and-white striped tie, soon hit his stride, parrying Merkel's jibes and using his humour and relaxed grin to win over the audience. A snap poll on German television station Sat1 showed that 52 percent of those surveyed believed Schroeder had won the clash against 32 percent who chose Merkel.

Another survey for RTL television showed Schroeder with a 54 percent to 31 percent advantage. But the polls also showed that a majority of German voters thought Merkel had performed better than expected. Only 13 percent in the RTL poll said the debate had changed how they would vote.

With just two weeks to go until a September 18 federal election, opinion polls give Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) a comfortable 11-point lead over Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD). That margin virtually assures that Merkel will replace Schroeder and become Germany's first woman chancellor and only leader from the former communist East.

But any narrowing in the polls could prevent Merkel from winning a parliamentary majority with her party's traditional allies, the Free Democrats (FDP) and force her into a "grand coalition" with the SPD -- a result which financial markets fear would lead to gridlock, Reuters reports.

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