Merkel and her party have been bolstered in national polls by a relatively robust economy, low unemployment and the chancellor's hard-nosed handling of Europe's debt crisis. They also have profited from a stumbling performance by her Social Democratic challenger, Peer Steinbrueck, while the Free Democrats took much of the blame for internal government squabbling â¿¿ particularly over the party's unfulfilled demands for tax cuts.

On Sunday, tactical voting by conservative supporters helped the Free Democrats easily clear the 5 percent support needed to win parliamentary seats â¿¿ which pre-election polls suggested it might not. But that weighed down the performance of Merkel's party without giving the combination enough votes to hold off the opposition.

The outcome is "not a good foundation for the national election campaign," said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University. "The distance between the chancellor's popularity and people's approval of the government's work is so large that that would give me cause for concern."

The result ends, for now at least, sniping within the Free Democrats about embattled Vice Chancellor Philipp Roesler's future as party leader. Roesler said Monday he would stay on â¿¿ but that the party's veteran parliamentary caucus leader, Rainer Bruederle, will lead its election campaign.

Both sides will see Sunday's result as an incentive to mobilize their supporters, and Neugebauer noted that while the opposition alliance has helped its chances by presenting a united front, "the situation at federal level is a bit different" than in Lower Saxony.

A hard-left competitor that is strong in Germany's ex-communist east and not expected to join any government, the Left Party, is expected to win seats nationally, unlike in Lower Saxony â¿¿ reducing the chance of a majority for the Social Democrats and Greens.

Recent national polls show a majority neither for Merkel's center-right coalition nor for the main opposition parties. That raises the possibility of Merkel â¿¿ whose party consistently leads polls â¿¿ returning to the "grand coalition" with the Social Democrats under which she ran Germany for four years after narrowly winning election in 2005. The centrist combination was popular with voters but disliked by both parties' supporters.

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