By Clare Murphy
BBC News, Berlin
It has been a rocky road for Mrs Merkel despite a strong initial lead
It was virtually a done deal.
Gerhard Schroeder, who had scraped another three years of political existence out of his opposition to the Iraq war, was on his way out after failing to kick-start the German economy and reduce the country's doggedly high unemployment rate.
Angela Merkel, the conservative from the east, would become Germany's first female chancellor, ending seven years of centre-left rule. With an eye to the future, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair met her before Mr Schroeder when he visited Berlin in June.
But while Mrs Merkel is still set to win the most votes on Sunday, the polls suggest she could well be denied the majority she needs.
This opens the door to a range of coalitions - constellations which could leave her and her Christian Democrats (CDU) out in the cold.
"This is the first election in which I really can't give a prediction," says the oft-cited political analyst Juergen Falter. "I just don't know."
The rather reserved Mrs Merkel was always going to struggle to match the famous charisma of Mr Schroeder.
At rallies Mr Schroeder walks down the aisle and greets onlookers like a benevolent rock star his fans, shaking outstretched hands, laughing, waving.
Mrs Merkel gets straight up on stage and gets straight to the point: Germany's problems and what needs to be done.
Mr Schroeder slings off his jacket, rolls up his sleeves, and plays his crowd.
The TV debate threw these differences into sharp relief. While the political commentators felt Mrs Merkel had put on a better show, exhibiting a strong command of her subject matter, the viewers at home preferred Mr Schroeder's performance.
It is thought the fact that she is a woman may play both ways. On the one hand, there are female voters who say she wins their vote because she is a woman. On the other there are those who wonder aloud whether as a woman she will be "strong" enough to stand up to the men around her.
That is not to mention the constant media coverage about her appearance. Even the journalists who write it concede they probably would not be doing so if she were a man.
And then there is the matter of her being from the formerly communist east. Sixteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, stark divisions between east and west remain.
Mr Schroeder is a veteran media-savvy performer at rallies
She has suffered the worst of both worlds: mistrusted by some Westerners because of her provenance, disliked by some Easterners because they feel she has renounced it.
"But even in today's media-driven politics, you don't have to be totally likeable. It may have helped Schroeder, but it doesn't necessarily have to be a hindrance for Merkel," says Eckhard Jesse, politics professor at Chemnitz University.
"If people really want change they will vote for you."
And therein lies the rub.
While many Germans do apparently want change, not all of them like the details outlined by Mrs Merkel.
"As soon as this election was called in May, it automatically became about what the CDU would do differently, rather than what plans the SPD had," says political scientist Gerd Langguth. "And perhaps inevitably, some of the CDU proposals appear painful."
MAKE-UP OF BUNDESTAG
1. Social Democrats (SPD): 249
2. Christian Democrats/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU): 247
3. Greens: 55
4. Free Democrats (FDP): 47
5. Others: 3
A rise in VAT by two percentage points is particularly unpopular. The money would be used to pay for a reduction in employers' social security costs and thus potentially encourage them to take on more staff.
But while Mrs Merkel suffers as her plans are scrutinised, Mr Schroeder, who has not presented such a concrete plan, appears to have got off rather lightly.
At the same time, he has been blessed by the presence of Mrs Merkel's shadow finance minister.
Reforms mooted by Paul Kirchhof which include a flat tax and a closure of many tax loopholes has been seized on by the SPD as evidence that the party wants to punish the poor and reward the rich.
"In fact, with the Kirchhof scheme there are some really quite social elements. But the CDU have allowed the SPD to take control of this subject," says Juergen Falter. "They haven't communicated their intentions at all well."
In the final crucial stage of the campaign, the party has seemed unsure of its stance on Mr Kirchhof - creating a damaging impression of disunity in its ranks.
"What Schroeder has managed to do," says Eckhard Jesse, "is make same voters forget why these elections were called in the first place."
Indeed, when you see the confident chancellor on stage, he does not seem like a man who witnessed a string of bruising local election defeats over the last year amid dissatisfaction with his reform programme.
A number of analysts think enough people will remember this on Sunday to produce a right-wing coalition, even if it wins by the narrowest of majorities.
But Mr Schroeder is not packing his bags in the chancellery, and Mrs Merkel is not yet preparing to move in.
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