Although Mrs Merkel remains on course to become Germany's first female Chancellor, Mr Schröder and his Social Democrats (SPD) have narrowed the gap. Opinion polls are showing for the first time that the CDU and its coalition partners, the Free Democrats, could fall short of a parliamentary majority. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of the campaign is becoming bitter.
Furious about claims that the CDU has radical neoconservative plans for "the end of social Germany", the party's general secretary, Volker Kauder, said of Mr Schröder: "That a serving Chancellor should lie so brazenly is unique in the history of the Federal Republic." With the SPD leader still far more personally popular than his somewhat colourless adversary, other CDU figures have taken up the theme that he is a liar, an unusual departure in Germany's normally sober politics.
The election race appears to have revived Mr Schröder, who has often seemed weary of the cares of office. Not long ago a couple of 12-year-olds sent by the state broadcaster, ARD, asked him to write down his greatest wish. He paused thoughtfully, and then scrawled the simple word "health". This raised many eyebrows. What about a third term in office? A massive reduction in the five million Germans unemployed? Sustained growth for his country's beleaguered economy? It conveyed the image of a man who almost wanted to lose.
"You certainly get the impression he's had enough," said Tom Levine, a leading German political commentator. "It's why he called early elections in the first place. He wanted to be Chancellor so he could get things done. He could see that just wasn't going to happen in his final year in office."
As well as facing another year of his unpopular reform programme, blocked by the CDU majority in parliament's upper house, he has good personal reasons for wanting out. Doris Schröder-Kopf, his fourth wife, is 20 years his junior and is said to be keen to move to New York to restart her journalistic career after seven years in her husband's shadow. The couple also recently adopted a four-year-old Russian girl, Viktoria. Mr Schröder, now 61, has reportedly told friends that this election is a clear choice "between victory and Viktoria".
Mr Schröder, known as the "bosses' Chancellor", is comfortable in big-business circles and there are rumours that he plans to go on to work for the Russian energy firm Gazprom. He could also supple- ment his €7,500 (£5,000)-a-month Chancellor's pension and €326,000 "transition money" by giving speeches earning thousands a time.
"You'd have to ask the man himself, of course, but my bet is he wants to make money now," said Professor Gert-Joachim Glaessner, a political scientist at Berlin's Humboldt University. "He knows he has no political future. Better to win, or go out with a bang, than get weaker and weaker like John Major did."
Mr Schröder's personal approval rating shot up six points last week to 54 per cent. Even if he doesn't want to be, he remains a popular figure. "I think it's sad," said Luiselotte Schmück, a life-long SPD voter who had come to see Mr Schröder speak at an election rally in Kassel. "It's as if he knows he's going to lose, but he's fighting on through duty."
Last week, however, the Forsa opinion poll put the SPD at 43 per cent, its best rating since January. Heartened supporters tied hand-painted placards to trees outside Mr Schröder's Hanover home, urging: "Do it Again, Gerd!"
"Schröder's certainly not playing to win," said Mr Levine, but it seems there's a chance that the Chancellor could still gain a third term, almost despite himself.
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