BERLIN • Germany's most populous state goes to the polls today in the biggest and final dry run for Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democratic opponent before the national election in September.
With challenger Martin Schulz seeking to keep his Social Democrats (SPD) in contention for the chancellery, more than a fifth of the nation's electorate is in play today in North Rhine-Westphalia, a faded industrial powerhouse with 18 million people.
Polls suggest the race between SPD premier Hannelore Kraft and Dr Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) is too close to call.
"There's a lot at stake this Sunday," Ms Kraft, who has led the state since 2010, told a rally in the steel city of Duisburg last Friday.
Dr Merkel held her final rally in the state early yesterday in Aachen, Mr Schulz's hometown.
Written off last year for her refugee stance, Dr Merkel is rebounding after the SPD's "Schulz effect", a poll surge following his nomination in January, tapered off.
The stakes are higher for the SPD after two consecutive state defeats by the CDU, including an election last Sunday in Schleswig-Holstein, where the CDU unseated a Social Democrat-led government. That landed a blow to Mr Schulz, a former European Parliament president who generated hope within his party that he could pose the most serious threat to Dr Merkel since she took office in 2005.
A victory for Dr Merkel's party in North Rhine-Westphalia, where Social Democrats have governed for 45 of the last 50 years, would consolidate her advantage ahead of the national vote on Sept 24.
The Chancellor is promoting herself to German voters as a steady hand as Europe is buffeted by political risk, including a resurgent Russia under President Vladimir Putin and an unpredictable ally in US President Donald Trump.
That was the message by CDU lawmaker Oliver Wittke at a rally alongside Dr Merkel last week in Haltern am See, a town of 38,000. "It's a very good thing to have such an anchor of stability in charge of the government," Mr Wittke told the crowd framed by gabled houses and a brick church. "This Sunday in North Rhine-Westphalia is important for our country."
All polls in the state point to losses for the governing SPD and Greens, suggesting their coalition government would not get another term. The CDU had 32 per cent support compared with the SPD's 31 per cent, according to the latest FG Wahlen poll for broadcaster ZDF.
Dr Merkel and Mr Schulz have criss-crossed the region for weeks, with the SPD chief seeking to maintain support for his message of social justice in a state that has lost the leverage it once had with its industrial might.
Dr Merkel has hit hard on the SPD's record on crime and debt, rallying a CDU base that traditionally has a difficult time getting the upper hand.
"The SPD is very nervous right now," Mr Armin Laschet, the CDU candidate for state premier, told a rally with the Chancellor in the town of Haltern am See last week.
Dr Merkel has said the party "can't waste a single vote".
National polls have also shifted against the SPD since some surveys showed Mr Schulz lifting his party to parity in February and March. Support for Dr Merkel's CDU-led bloc rose 2 percentage points to 37 per cent and the SPD fell 3 points to 27 per cent compared with late April in an Infratest Dimap poll published last Thursday.
BLOOMBERG, WASHINGTON POST