This is not the impression you would have had from Germany's television coverage on the night, or from much of the German press yesterday. The vast majority of pundits and instant opinion polls named the present Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, as the out-and-out winner of the debate. They seemed to have been swayed by the same combination of charm and authority that won Mr Schröder the Chancellery seven years ago and allowed him to squeak home, against the odds, three years ago.
I happened to judge, for what it is worth, that Ms Merkel won hands down. She was invariably more incisive than the Chancellor; she was armed with more positive, well thought-out ideas, and she never allowed herself to be wrong-footed. If hesitation is taken as a gauge of diffidence, then Ms Merkel even won on assurance. Mr Schröder's ums and ers were four times more frequent than hers - the popular Bild newspaper was counting.
For Ms Merkel, though, the imperative was less to win or lose than to hold her own. Mr Schröder was a known quantity, for better - and worse. The risk for Ms Merkel was that she would seem ill-equipped for high office, or crack under the pressure. Her polls ratings would have slumped instantly; the clips of her failure would have been shown time and again. A poor debate could have cost her the election. In the event, the result of the single television debate of this campaign is that when Germans vote on 18 September, they will have a real choice.
It is a great compliment to Ms Merkel that this choice will be as much about policies as about personalities. For much of its excessive 90-minute length, Sunday night's debate was a dense exchange about competing ideas and the small print of how to implement them. Two anticipated "distractions" - that a male-female contest would change the nature of the occasion and that undue attention would be paid to Ms Merkel's appearance - were banished within minutes. Here were two professional politicians battling it out over the opportunity to lead Germany for the next four years.
Ms Merkel herself helped to foster this businesslike atmosphere. She eschewed the more colourful jackets she has favoured of late and reverted to black. Her make-up was understated; the slightly softer hairstyle she has adopted recently still had something of the haystack. In short, she did nothing that would draw attention to her appearance. Yet she had presence. And for all her efforts over the months to discourage comparisons, her attitude and demeanour were reminiscent of the early Thatcher - to the point where it was possible to imagine that her advisers had studied film of Margaret Thatcher when she campaigned as prime minister-in-waiting.
There was a similar determination, a similar concern for exactitude, a similar detailed command of different policy areas, and the same preference for the specific over the abstract. And when Mr Schröder - "new man" though he claims to be - tried to patronise her, she displayed more than a hint of the haughty disdain with which the then Mrs Thatcher would see off male opponents. Ms Merkel has never seemed naturally arrogant, either as deputy leader of the centre-right alliance during Germany's last general election, or now. But on Sunday she affected an assertiveness from the first minutes that signalled she would not be pushed around, and managed to transform her customary aloofness into authority. It is now possible to believe that she could be not just "the first woman Chancellor", but Chancellor.
Ms Merkel also gave a clear exposition of some highly controversial policies. That this election is a genuine contest of alternative programmes gives it a quite different feel from the election three years ago. The parties had planned for that election to be fought over Mr Schröder's plans for economic reform. Partly by chance, and partly because of Mr Schröder's genius for political opportunism, the issues became the politicians' handling of floods in eastern Germany and US plans for regime-change in Iraq.
But the impassioned discussions now taking place in Germany are not a reprise of the policy debates that the floods and Iraq supplanted. Three years have passed. The Schröder government has managed to introduce reforms to the social security system that cannot yet be condemned as ineffectual. Ms Merkel wants to change and refine these reforms in the hope of accelerating the fall in joblessness.
She wants private employment agencies to replace the centralised leviathan created by Mr Schröder. She wants to simplify a tax system that is even more complicated than the one Gordon Brown perpetually tinkers with over here, while - so far - stopping short of a completely "flat" tax on the East European model. She opposes the accession of Turkey to the European Union, arguing that a "privileged partnership" should suffice.
The other issue looming large in this campaign is referred to as "demographics". Germany's birth-rate lags behind many European countries, most strikingly France, and the population is shrinking. Ms Merkel's implicit efforts to play the "female Chancellor" card here have been cattily challenged by Mrs Schröder, who asked whether a woman who was childless - as Ms Merkel is - could understand the difficulties of families with children. The Schröder government is pledging more money for child care; Ms Merkel prefers more flexible, British-style, remedies.
The German election campaign now reaching its climax has fostered lively public discussion on all these issues, and the differences between the two main parties are stark. Fear of a "flat tax", in particular, could persuade some potential Merkel voters to stick with Schröder. As one of the canniest and most underestimated politicians in the world, Gerhard Schröder cannot be written off.
With her performance on Sunday night, however, Ms Merkel has surely earned a chance to show what she can do. Some of her ideas are highly divisive and Germany is still a country that feels more comfortable with consensus. That new ideas are on the agenda of this election at all, however, is almost entirely her doing, as is the verve with which this campaign is being fought. Angela Merkel may hate being called Germany's Thatcher, but she had better get used to it. She has already shown much of the spirit that distinguished the iron lady - and the comparisons will only multiply if she wins.Reuse content