By Erik Kirschbaum
OSTERHOLZ-SCHARMBECK, Germany, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Peer Steinbrueck looked uncomfortable as he waited to go onstage at a small-town rally for a regional election on Sunday that could make or break his ambitions to be Germany's next leader.
No one was talking to the Social Democrat (SPD) candidate for chancellor, whose blunders have sent his party into a tailspin in national opinion polls and could drag Stephan Weil, SPD candidate for state premier in Lower Saxony, to an unexpected defeat on Sunday.
As Weil chatted and laughed with former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and ex-foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Steinbrueck put his hands in his pockets and searched in vain for someone to talk to before the four marched into the hall.
Steinbrueck spoke for just 10 minutes, while the other SPD leaders hogged the stage - or perhaps just helped the gaffe-prone Steinbrueck from scoring more own goals.
In the four months since the SPD picked him to run against Angela Merkel, the party's poll ratings have tumbled so far it could cost Weil what was once seen as certain victory.
The 66-year-old former finance minister has become a liability after airing his opinion that chancellors are underpaid and women like Merkel have an unfair advantage in politics due to their gender.
One national poll this week showed the SPD falling 20 points behind Merkel's conservatives to 23 percent, an 18-month low. In Lower Saxony, the SPD is about seven points behind the Christian Democrats (CDU), but Weil is still in the race thanks to his allies the Greens, who put the combined centre left neck-and-neck with the CDU and their Free Democrat (FDP) partners.
In Osterholz-Scharmbeck, a working class town of 30,000 near the Dutch border, Steinbrueck got a polite but cool reception, while Schroeder, Steinmeier and Weil enjoyed hearty cheers.
"Steinbrueck has made a lot of stupid comments lately," said Andrea Reese, 47, a clerical worker who was surprised to find out that Steinbrueck was the fourth speaker, added at the last minute. She said she came to see Weil, Schroeder and Steinmeier.
"The things he's been saying and doing aren't what you'd expect from an SPD candidate," she added. "I thought he'd be a good candidate and never expected to see it go wrong like this."
Steinbrueck had been supposed to help Weil win Sunday's election, a victory in Germany's fourth most populous state on Jan. 20 that the SPD hoped to use as a springboard to winning the big prize in September's federal election.
Merkel's ally in Lower Saxony, state premier David McAllister, told the Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung newspaper on Monday he hoped Steinbrueck would make more campaign appearances and so raise the chances of a conservative victory.
"I'm not here to help McAllister. Where would you get an idea like that?" Steinbrueck told Reuters after the rally.
When reminded of McAllister's comments, Steinbrueck grinned: "That's his Scottish-coloured humour coming through."
Steinbrueck also said he hoped to put the gaffes behind him.
"At times I've regretted somewhat that I've been misunderstood, either maliciously or through negligence," Steinbrueck said. "I've never said I wanted higher pay for politicians. I was only comparing wages. The matter is closed."
Steinbrueck quickly left the building, while Steinmeier and Weil stayed behind to chat, shake hands, sign autographs and pose for pictures with locals.
Weil said he was glad Steinbrueck and others from Berlin were joining him on the campaign trail in Lower Saxony, a vast state in northwest Germany with more than 6 million voters.
"The issue has been totally overblown," Weil told Reuters. "People in Lower Saxony don't care about all that. Peer Steinbrueck and others from Berlin are helping me."
But it was a stark contrast to the conservative campaign, where Merkel, who enjoys approval ratings much higher than her party, is the undisputed main attraction. The crowds at McAllister's rallies have also been larger than for Weil, the mayor of state capital Hanover.
Steinbrueck has spent much of the Lower Saxony campaign at closed-door "living room" meetings with groups of 10 ordinary people for direct conversations "unfiltered by the media". It is an unorthodox strategy in the week before a tight election.
Many voters in Osterholz-Scharmbeck, a well-kept town 20 km north of Bremen, said Steinbrueck's blunders were on their minds.
COULD HE BOW OUT?
"He doesn't have a clue about what ordinary people go through," said Martin Hof, a pensioner on a tight budget. He called Steinbrueck a "nightmare" candidate and was angry about his earning 1.25 million euros as an after-dinner speaker over the last three years while serving as a member of parliament.
The SPD selected Steinbrueck despite the fact that he lost his only election for state premier of neighbouring North Rhine-Westphalia in 2005. SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel and Steinmeier were also possible chancellor candidates but opted out, meaning Steinbrueck was chosen by default.
"He's been very clumsy," said Paula Kraman, 24, a student.
Annika Ihlenfeldt, 34, said Steinbrueck had spoilt the centre-left's chances of winning back power in Lower Saxony, a state that swings between the SPD and CDU.
"Steinbrueck has made it very difficult for Weil," said Ihlenfeldt, a Protestant vicar.
Some media even speculate that the sometimes hot-headed Steinbrueck could quit or be forced out next week if the SPD and Greens fail to win Lower Saxony, after squandering the 13-point lead in opinion polls that they had mid-way through last year.
The ARD public TV network devoted a 90-minute talk show on Wednesday evening to discussing this possibility and what the consequences would be. The programme was titled: "Shipwreck with Steinbrueck: does the SPD need a new captain?"
"Will Steinbrueck knock himself out?" was the cover story of Focus news weekly magazine. Rival magazine Der Spiegel also had Steinbrueck on its cover: "Why does he make so many mistakes?"
Hans Rogge, 84, said it was a shame that Steinbrueck had scored so many own goals, hurting Weil's chances and his own.
"He's actually quite likeable with his direct style," the retired salesman said. "But I don't think he's got a chance."