9:15 p.m. – The whole country has come to a standstill for this debate, it seems. It’s like during the World Cup soccer tournament — with “public viewing” arenas like this one in Berlin set up from The Black Forest to the Baltic.
9:00 p.m. – The sparks are flying here in the first half hour. The four interrogators, network heavyweights, are grilling both Merkel and Steinmeier and there’ s an unexpectedly good discussion going on here without a lot of long speeches. They’re debating about Opel right now — who deserves credit for saving the carmaker. Steinmeier said it would be “Mausetot” (dead as a mouse) if it had been up to Merkel and a centre-right government. Merkel counters — nonsense.
8:50 p.m. – Steinmeier and Merkel don’t use the informal “du” with ach other, the world has just learned. It might sound like a trivial question but I bet a lot of people will remember Steinmeier’s answer to that unusual question: “We don’t use ‘du’ — that’s not something that I consider necessary in politics,” Steinmeier says.
8:36 p.m. – Merkel is also at pains to show her more optimistic side, using her opening question to give a little spiel about how successful the grand coalition has been working “under my leadership”. She doesn’t waste any time ticking off her accomplishments and points out that unemployment fell from 5 million when she took office to under 3 million. What she doesn’t mention is that unemployment is now rising again and her predecessor actually deserves quite a bit of the credit for that initial decline.8:33 p.m. – The debate gets off to a quick start. No messing about. Steinmeier gets the first question and it takes him less than 3 minutes to rattle off all his campaign buzz words: “There’sa better alternative — me,” Steinmeier says with a wide smile. The Foreign Minister seems to be at pains to show he’s in a good mood and silence all those media critics who say he talks like a cold bureaucrat. He goes right on the attack, criticising Merkel for resisting the SPD’s calls for a minimum wage and limiting manager pay. And then Steinmeier pulls out the hammer in his last opening comment — nuclear power. He wants to scare voters worried about CDU/CSU plans to extend the use of nuclear power into his camp. “With us there won’t be any retreat into nuclear power,” he says.
7:15 p.m. – Merkel arrives after Steinmeier and on her own. Her husband will be watching from home.
7:00 p.m. – Steinmeier arrives to the studio first, accompanied by his wife — a Berlin judge. The pressure is clearly on the challenger but he flashes a wide, confident grin to the waiting photographers. ”With the SPD trailing Merkel’s conservatives in the polls by 11-14 points, the onus is on Steinmeier to land a punch on Merkel and win over undecided voters,” my colleague Madeline Chambers wrote in her afternoon update story. “Analysts say up to 40 percent have still to make up their mind.” Steinmeier is wearing a bright red tie — matching the colour of his centre-left Social Democrats. There will be a lot of speculation about Merkel’s outfit — but one thing is certain: her husband won’t be with her. He’s watching at home.
5 p.m. – So where is this TV studio where German history could be made tonight? The Adlershof TV studio in the southeastern corner of Berlin is the same venue for the 2005 debate. It’s the former production site for Communist East German TV and it’s a corner of Berlin Merkel knows well — not only did she square off in the same studio against Schroeder but she also worked as a physicists at the East Germany Academy of Sciences in the adjoining Technology Park before the Berlin Wall fell and she ended up in politics. As my German language service colleague Kim Bode pointed out in her story from a visit to Adlershof, “If you look past the red carpet where Merkel and Steinmeier will be standing, Studio B is a rather small and sober-looking place,” she notes. CDU campaign manager Peter Radunski warned her against expecting too much: “Neither candidate is an entertainer of the same calibre as Obama.” Her headline summary of what to expect: “The TV debate could be dull, but it could also decide the election.”
4 p.m. – German newspaper Bild am Sonntag calls tonight’s debate “the climax of the election campaign.” It notes that both Merkel and Steinmeier have cleared their calendars for the last several days to prepare and relax for the debate. “Steinmeier’s going to go for a long walk this morning after having breakfast with his family and spend the afternoon studying for the debate — his wife Elke Buedenbender will drive with him to the TV studio and watch it from an adjacent room,” Bild am Sonntag writes. “Merkel’s husband, Professor Joachim Sauer, will be watching the debate on TV at home.”
3 p.m – Schroeder was again far behind in opinion polls in 2005 when he went into the one TV debate with Merkel, then the leader of the opposition. As my colleague Noah Barkin pointed out in his preview story, Schroeder also seemed to come out of the encounter with the edge even if his second comeback rally in 2005 fell just short of catching Merkel’s conservatives. “But Steinmeier lacks the quick wit of Schroeder, one of the most rhetorically gifted German leaders of the post-war era.” His story also quotes Manfred Guellner, head of the Forsa polling group, saying: “It will be tough to score points against Merkel, who has gained a lot of experience with public events like this over the past years.” Barkin wrote the essence of this debate is: ”Steinmeier gets a last chance to turn around his troubled campaign.”
1 p.m. – The TV debate idea was imported rather reluctantly at first from the United States ahead of the 2002 election. Previously, incumbent German chancellors had “keine Interesse” in letting their challengers get up on the same stage with them. Before 1998, post-war Germans had never voted out an incumbent chancellor. German leaders had only left or were ousted midterm through resignation. But in 1998, Gerhard Schroeder beat incumbent Helmut Kohl at the ballot box — without a TV debate. In 2002, Schroeder was far behind conservative challenger Edmund Stoiber in opinion polls and had little to lose when agreeing to the first debate that has since become a tradition.
12:00 noon – It’s “high noon” in the German election campaign and in a little over eight hours millions of Germans will get the chance to witness what could perhaps be the highlight of the contest two weeks before the vote when Chancellor Angela Merkel and her challenger Frank-Walter Steinmeier square off in a 90-minute live TV debate. But because both have been exceedingly cautious campaigners it could also end up being a damp squib. It is the only TV debate of the campaign that culminates in the Sept. 27 election and it’s of critical importance both for Merkel, who is looking to protect her 11 to 14 point lead in opinion polls, as well as for Steinmeier, who desperately needs to start scoring points now if he wants to narrow the gap. It’s unlikely either will score a knock-out blow — they’ve been working together in the same grand coalition government for the last four years and obviously know the material like the back of their hands. But the potential for a gaffe will keep an estimated 20 million TV households glued to their sets when the country’s four main networks (ARD, ZDF, RTL, SAT-1) all broadcast the head-to-head battle live at 8:30 p.m. “Is Merkel v. Steinmeier going to be a duel or a duet?” ZDF television asked in its preview report last night. We’ll keep you updated with all the key moments on this blog.