BERLIN: Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives on Monday (Aug 30) rallied behind their candidate to replace her after a national election on Sept. 26, promising to go on the offensive after he struggled to revive their campaign in a debate with rivals.
Armin Laschet, leader of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), lost a heated televised debate with his two main rivals on Sunday, according to a snap poll, as surveys show his party falling behind the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).
Laschet has been under fire since he was caught on camera laughing during a visit last month to a flood-stricken town, but senior party officials praised his combative style in Sunday's debate even if it did not immediately appear to win over voters.
"We have to fight for the next four weeks," Jens Spahn, a Laschet ally and CDU Health Minister told Bild TV, rejecting suggestions that the conservative alliance should drop Laschet in favour of Bavarian conservative Markus Soeder.
"You don't change the coach during the game," Spahn said.
The CDU's slide marks a remarkable fall for the party after 16 years in office and four straight national election victories under Merkel, who plans to step down after the election.
Soeder, who earlier this year ran against Laschet to be the conservative chancellor candidate, said his erstwhile rival had laid a good foundation for the next three-way debate in two weeks.
"From my point of view, this was exactly what we had hoped for to give us new momentum," Soeder told reporters in Munich. "It also motivates our own election campaigners."
But the CDU's slide in the polls is hurting its chances of governing again and Laschet said in closing remarks at Sunday's debate: "I have felt headwinds now and again, as I do now."
An INSA poll conducted for newspaper Bild am Sonntag showed support for the SPD rose two points from last week to 24 per cent, their highest result in four years. The conservatives slipped a point to 21 per cent, their lowest ever polled by INSA.
Laschet on Monday brushed off the post-debate snap poll, which showed that of voters surveyed by pollster Forsa, 36 per cent believed SPD candidate Olaf Scholz won, ahead of 30 per cent for Greens candidate Annalena Baerbock and 25 per cent for Laschet.
"Let's let the voters decide what they think is chancellor-like," he told a news conference, adding of Scholz's performance: "I didn't feel that there was a fireworks display of ideas."
Scholz is the most popular of the candidates in the polls. Despite the SPD's lead, they would still need to team up with two other parties to govern.