German voters had hoped that Sunday's much-hyped television debate between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democratic Party (SPD) challenger Frank-Walter Steinmeier would breathe life into the tepid election campaign that has been likened to a cotton wool fight.
Their hopes were dashed. The 90-minute encounter billed as a "TV duel" between the dispassionate German leader dubbed "Mutti" or Mummy and the gray-haired career bureaucrat was almost over when one of the four interviewers uttered in exasperation: "You're like a harmonious old married couple!"
The mass-circulation Bild newspaper ran the banner headline "Yes we Yawn!" on its front page on Monday. It neatly summed up the public reaction and the general disappointment that there's no Barack Obama in sight on the German horizon.
Merkel and Steinmeier have shared power since 2005 in a coalition between her conservatives and the SPD. And judging by the way they avoided attacking each other on Sunday, it is plain that they wouldn't be averse to prolonging the marriage for another four-year term after the Sept. 27 election.
However, Steinmeier, the foreign minister, emerged as the winner on points because he delivered a better-than-expected performance while Merkel was stiffer and appeared more nervous than usual, especially in the first half of the debate, which was carried live on the four main TV networks.
Two out of three snap opinion polls of viewers found that Steinmeier had narrowly beaten Merkel, while one saw Merkel slightly ahead, but the differences were very slight. Most commentators said Steinmeier had come out in front.
Steinmeier Picked up Points
But it's unclear whether that will do him much good given that the SPD is trailing the conservatives by more than 10 points in opinion polls with less than two weeks to go before polling day.
As things stand, Merkel is widely expected to remain chancellor, either in a repeat of the current coalition or in an alliance with her preferred partner, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP).
But Steinmeier, who has never fought an election before and is more accustomed to backroom power-brokering than to public speaking, showed on Sunday that he has managed to improve his rhetorical skills in the course of the campaign.
"Steinmeier has learned to make his sentences shorter, and he adopted a bullet point style in his arguments, which came across well," Richard Schütze, a communications consultant, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Merkel at times came across as very bureaucratic but she got better and her closing statement was better than his.
"Neither of them has much spontaneity, and they don't have a personal story to tell. They are both professional managers of power, very balanced and calculating and cautious and unemotional. You could tell that they had practiced all their answers. They reeled them off like from a song sheet.
"But this wasn't a duel," Schütze said. "The only arguing they did was with the interviewers, not with each other."
Both Merkel and Steinmeier praised their achievements governing together in the so-called grand coalition since 2005.
"The past has been good and you won't change my mind about the fact that we have got a lot done," said Merkel. "But I think for a democracy it's good when grand coalitions don't become normality."
They only really disagreed on nuclear power, where Merkel wants to prolong the planned phase-out period of certain reactors, on Merkel's plans for tax cuts and Steinmeier's insistence on a minimum wage.
On Afghanistan, where they were singing from the same hymn sheet only last week, Steinmeier now wants to lay the foundations by 2013 for a German troop withdrawal plan, SPIEGEL reported. That would include closing the first German army base as soon as 2011.
Merkel refrained from setting any dates, merely reiterating Germany would stick to a planned international agreement on a withdrawal, proposed earlier this month by Germany, France and Britain.
Impact on Election Outcome Seen Limited
In the 2002 and 2005 elections, the TV debates helped determine the election outcome. This time, analysts don't think it will. For a start, the ratings at 14.21 million fell short of the expected 20 million.
Second, the last two debates involved former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a much more charismatic politician who went as far as to profess his love for his fourth wife, Doris, on camera to woo voters.
And after four years of sharing power, the two contenders this time are far closer together than was the case in the last two elections.
The opposition Greens, Free Democrats and Left Party are furious they weren't allowed to take part in the debate, and dismissed it as a charade.
"This was the clear signal: these two parties want to carry on their coalition," Dietmar Bartsch, a senior member of the Left Party, told German television. "I thought it was a very boring duel, and I thought neither of them was good."
FDP leader Guido Westerwelle told Bild: "These were scenes from a forced marriage. Only the voters can bring about a divorce."
Analysts said the debate was unlikely to have a lasting impact on voters unless Steinmeier manages to build on the slight momentum he has gained to attract the estimated 30 to 40 percent of voters who haven't made up their minds yet, according to opinion polls.
"It was definitely good for his mobilization efforts in the coming days, this spontaneity, this freshness that Steinmeier brought in," Prof Karl-Rudolf Korte, a political scientist at the University of Duisburg-Essen, told German public broadcaster ZDF. "He surprised people."
But despite the complaints about boredom, there is little evidence that Germans want a change of government. They want "Mutti" Merkel to continue nursing them through the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, and they're quite happy with Steinmeier -- as foreign minister -- opinion polls show.
"Merkel is waging a non-campaign but that's in tune with what people really want," Manfred Güllner, director of polling institute Forsa, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The SPD has being trying to attack her but it's all been bouncing off."