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Merkel and rival clash on eurozone

Angela Merkel and her centre-left rival sparred over Europe's debt crisis and how best to keep Germany's economy strong in a televised debate, with the the chancellor's challenger insisting that it made no sense to apply a "deadly dose" of austerity to eurozone strugglers.

Peer Steinbrueck went into the 90-minute debate - the pair's only direct TV encounter of the September 22 election campaign - facing a daunting poll deficit and needing a strong performance after a summer in which the opposition has struggled to land blows on popular conservative Mrs Merkel.

Neither contender scored a knockout blow or made a major mistake, and polls conducted by broadcasters showed no clear winner. In his opening statement, Mr Steinbrueck portrayed Germany as having "gone round in circles, without direction" under Mrs Merkel's centre-right coalition over the past four years.

Mrs Merkel has benefited from a healthy economy, low unemployment and perceptions that she has managed Europe's debt crisis well. She touted that record as the debate opened, pointing to high employment and portraying Germany as "the motor of growth" and "the anchor of stability" in Europe.

Last month her finance minister said that there will have to be a third aid programme for Greece after the current one ends last year - something that the chancellor again insisted was nothing new. Germany, with Europe's biggest economy, is the biggest contributor to the 17-nation eurozone's rescue programmes. Mrs Merkel has pursued a hard-nosed approach - insisting that struggling countries get their finances in order, take responsibility for their own problems and enact economic reforms.

Mr Steinbrueck asked "whether, with the announcement of a third Greek package, we shouldn't admit to ourselves that the crisis strategy to date - largely put forward by this government - has failed". He argued that "what is lacking is a rebuilding programme, what is lacking is a growth impulse, what is lacking is the fight against youth unemployment". "I would have said, of course there must be consolidation of public budgets - but please not in a deadly dose for these countries," he said.

Mrs Merkel noted that Mr Steinbrueck's Social Democrats have voted for the various measures she has put forward in the crisis - including a European budget-discipline pact - and insisted that her approach was the way to fix the eurozone's troubles.

"Do we help by expressing regret about the difficult situation in these countries, or do we help by encouraging them to conduct the necessary reforms?" she asked. "What is important now is not to show false solidarity, but to follow a principle - and this principle is ... solidarity and responsibility, and if we do not follow this through we will see that these countries don't regain more jobs." Mrs Merkel pointed to efforts that have been made to encourage growth in Europe.

Recent surveys have given Mrs Merkel's conservative bloc a large lead over Mr Steinbrueck's Social Democrats and suggested that her current coalition can hope to win re-election.

Mr Steinbrueck was Mrs Merkel's finance minister in her 2005-9 "grand coalition" of right and left - an experience that both insist they do not want to repeat, but could emerge from an indecisive election.

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