By GEIR MOULSON
BERLIN (AP) â¿¿ Chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-left rival sparred over Europe's debt crisis and how best to keep Germany's economy strong as they faced off Sunday in a televised debate ahead of Sept. 22 elections, with Merkel's challenger insisting that it makes no sense to apply a "deadly dose" of austerity to eurozone strugglers.
Challenger Peer Steinbrueck went into the 90-minute debate â¿¿ the pair's only direct TV encounter of the campaign â¿¿ facing a daunting poll deficit and needing a strong performance after a summer in which the opposition has struggled to land blows on the popular conservative incumbent.
Neither contender scored a knockout blow or made a major mistake, and polls conducted by broadcasters showed no clear winner. In his opening statement, Steinbrueck portrayed Germany as having "gone round in circles, without direction" under Merkel's center-right coalition over the past four years.Merkel has benefited from a healthy economy, low unemployment and perceptions that she's 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. Merkel's finance minister last month said that there will have to be a third aid program for Greece after the current one ends last year â¿¿ something that the chancellor again insisted is nothing new. Germany, with Europe's biggest economy, is the biggest contributor to the 17-nation eurozone's rescue programs. Merkel has pursued a hard-nosed approach â¿¿ insisting that struggling countries get their finances in order, take responsibility for their own problems and enact economic reforms. Steinbrueck asked "whether, with the announcement of a third Greek package, we shouldn't admit to ourselves that the crisis strategy to date â¿¿ largely put forward by this government â¿¿ has failed." He argued that "what is lacking is a rebuilding program, what is lacking is a growth impulse, what is lacking is the fight against youth unemployment."