MUNICH — You'd think Anthony Weiner was his campaign manager.
Peer Steinbruck, Chancellor Angela Merkel's leading challenger in national elections later this month, is getting new attention not for his platform but for having directed a universally understood obscene hand gesture at reporters and editors in a recent interview with a top German newspaper.
Mr. Steinbruck's middle finger has been the talk of Germany ever since the picture of his gesture appeared in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung last Friday as part of a weekly column in which guests are asked to respond to questions with gestures, rather than words.
The newspaper reported that it is illegal to give the bird, or "stink finger" as they call it in Germany, an offense that can lead to a fine of about $800 to $5,000.
Critics say this is a sign that Mr. Steinbruck and his Social Democratic party have given up on any hopes of knocking off the favored Mrs. Merkel.
"I think it shows that he has the freedom of the assured loser," said Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "If he really thought he could be chancellor of Germany, he would not have OK'ed the release of that picture."
But it has been a difficult campaign for the center-left Social Democrats, who trail the more conservative Mrs. Merkel and Christian Democratic coalition by double digits with less than a week to go before voters head to the polls Sept. 22. Mrs. Merkel appears primed to win a third term as chancellor in Europe's most financially-stable country.
In a TNS Emnid poll released Sunday, the Christian Democrats held a 39 percent to 26 percent lead over the Social Democrats. Another poll, conducted by YouGov, found the race was a bit tighter at 38 percent to 27 percent.
But in terms of the candidates' individual popularity, Forschungsgruppe Wahlen found that 59 percent of German voters would pick Mrs. Merkel, compared to just 32 percent for Mr. Steinbruck, if they could vote directly for chancellor. Instead, they vote for a party that then selects a chancellor.
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