BERLIN (AFP) - A TV clash between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her centre-left rival has fired up a slow campaign three weeks before elections, but while snap polls judged it an unexpected draw, few saw it as a game-changer.
While popular Merkel has enjoyed a yawning poll lead for months, many observers gave points to her Social Democratic challenger Peer Steinbrueck for reinvigorating his campaign that got off to a slow start and was hobbled by a series of gaffes.
The conservative chancellor, who is seeking a third term in September 22 elections at the helm of Europe's biggest economy, appeared calm, composed and presidential, while Steinbrueck often went on the attack and showed occasional flashes of folksy humour.
"Chancellor and candidate, a duel among equals," headlined Die Welt daily, while the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called it a "one-all" draw.
ARD public television's Infratest dimap poll judged Steinbrueck the more convincing speaker, with a 49-44 poll lead. The number of respondents who said they would vote for him rose from 28 to 45 per cent through the 90-minute debate.
A separate poll for ZDF public television however gave Merkel a 40-33 per cent edge as the winner of the debate, with 27 per cent judging them equals.
An RTL private television poll also said she won by a wafer-thin margin.
While the much anticipated duel late Sunday - the only one of the campaign, watched by over 17 million people - did revive Steinbrueck's struggling campaign, it was not widely seen likely to reverse Merkel's strong lead.
"Joy, yes - euphoria, no - that would sum up the feeling among the Social Democrats," commented news magazine Spiegel Online.
"At the very least, it didn't go badly wrong, and that's quite something in this election battle."
Over the past year, Steinbrueck has earned a series of media bashings for verbal slip-ups - from a complaint about the chancellor's salary being too low, to comments dismissing inexpensive wine, to a jibe that caused offence in Italy.
Before the TV clash, Merkel enjoyed an almost 30-point lead over Steinbrueck in personal approval ratings, while her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has been Germany's strongest party in survey after survey.
A poll published Sunday gave the CDU and its Bavarian sister party 39 per cent, and six per cent to their junior coalition partner the pro-business Free Democrats.
Their combined score represents a strong lead over the total of 23 per cent for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and 11 per cent for their preferred allies the Greens.
Steinbrueck - who prides himself on his "straight talk" compared to Merkel's "pebble-smooth" politspeak - has argued all along that he would fire up on the final run-up to the election, when German voters start paying attention to the candidates.
The football match-length TV clash was watched by 17.6 million viewers, many of them undecided voters, on five channels - three million more than in the election four years ago.
The debate also stirred busy online activity, which briefly made the topic #TVduell the most trending on Twitter.
Merkel's necklace in the national colours black, red and gold was an especially hot topic among the 32 tweets per second.
During the face-off, which focused on dozens of mostly domestic issues, the incumbent stressed that "Germany is an engine for growth, Germany is an anchor of stability".
Steinbrueck called on voters not to be lulled into a false sense of security and accused Merkel of "four years of going round in circles", while outlining his own vision for a socially just Germany and more help for crisis-hit eurozone countries.
The SPD challenger came across as "authentic", communications expert Stephan Lermer told AFP, although he said Steinbrueck also tried to squeeze too much detail into his responses.
However, he also said Merkel, as the incumbent, "radiated comforting continuity".
A Berenberg Bank analysis said that amid "Germany's most boring election campaign ever", the debate "was fairly civil and revealed no major disagreements on euro policies".
"At the margin, the debate may have helped Steinbrueck a little ... he for once did not underperform expectations," said Berenberg.
"That will be a relief for his party and likely lift his dismal personal popularity ratings relative to those of Merkel a bit. But we doubt that this will be a game changer for the campaign."