German Chancellor Angela Merkel has touted her government's economic record as she faced off against her centre-left rival in their only live televised debate before the country's September 22 election.
The conservative incumbent said at the start of Sunday's debate, carried live on several channels, that Germany has more people at work than ever and pointed to her management of Europe's debt crisis.
"Germany is the motor of growth, Germany is the anchor of stability and I would like to continue this course," Merkel said.
Challenger Peer Steinbrueck, 66, of the Social Democrat Party (SPD) accused Merkel of crushing southern European countries with austerity, declaring her euro crisis strategy a failure.
Merkel, who is seeking a third term in the September 22 vote, hit back, pointing out that Steinbrueck's SPD had supported her euro policies in parliament throughout the turmoil of the past years.
"You voted for everything," Merkel said, turning and smiling at her rival.
The clash, watched by an estimated 15 million viewers, was seen by many as Steinbrueck's last chance to change the momentum in a campaign in which he has trailed from the very start.
With three weeks to go to the election day, a poll published on Friday gave Merkel's conservatives 41 percent of the vote, ahead of the SPD (26 percent) and its preferred allies, the Greens (11 percent).
According to the Deutschlandtrend survey for ARD public television, Merkel's current coalition partner, pro-business the Free Democrats, scored five percent.
Few campaign topics
Some of the sharpest clashes in the debate came on the subject of Europe, a topic that had played only a small role in the campaign until a debate flared late last month over whether Greece might require a third bailout after the German vote.
"I would have followed a different crisis strategy. Of course there must be budget consolidation in these countries, but not a deadly dose," Steinbrueck said.
"Germany once got help too and we must not forget that. Germany was massively helped after the Second World War with the Marshall Plan."
Merkel has mostly ignored Steinbrueck who once served as her finance minister in a "grand coalition" during the election campaign.
With few actually divisive campaign topics to polarise the voters, the election campaign has been the most personality-based of recent times.
Steinbrueck hoped to increase his chances by underlining his pacifist stance as the former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder did 11 years ago by determinedly opposing the US-led invasion of Iraq during his election campaign.
Prior to Sunday's debate, Steinbrueck said he strongly opposed Western military action in Syria.
"I want to make it quite clear for myself and for the SPD that we believe a military intervention would be wrong because we cannot see how it would help the people in Syria," he said on Friday.
He also urged the US and Russian presidents, together with the heads of the UN and Arab League, to focus on negotiating a ceasefire in Syria.
Merkel previously said that Syrian President Bashar-al Assad's government should not go unpunished over the alleged chemical weapons attack near the capital, Damascus, on August 21.
However, she has not clearly come out in favour of a military action against the Assad regime.
She became the Germany's first female chancellor in 2005 and is also the only woman to lead a major European power since Margaret Thacher of Britain.
During her first term, Merkel chaired a "grand coalition" between the conservatives and their traditional rivals, the SPD.
Merkel’s victory in the 2009 elections allowed her to drop the SPD in favour of the Free Democrats as coalition partner.
If SPD will be able to close the gap with Merkel’s conservatives, both sides would be forced to consider re-forming a "grand coalition".