You can’t blame Armin Laschet for feeling a little bit lost these days. Four weeks before Germany goes to the polls on 26 September, the CDU’s candidate to succeed Angela Merkel has squandered the comfortable lead his party was enjoying at the start of the election campaign. And even when a combative Laschet clashed in the first of three TV debates with the main contenders on Sunday evening, he only came third.

Even before the two-hour programme – which saw Laschet, the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock and the SPD candidate, Olaf Scholz, debating issues from income tax to Afghanistan – polls had the CDU and SPD running neck and neck at 22 per cent, with the Greens a close third at 20 per cent.

During the debate, Laschet and Baerbock tried to make up for lost ground and fiercely tore into each other. Both Laschet and Baerbock, the first Green candidate for the top job in German politics, have to answer for several missteps in their campaign that clearly helped the SPD.

Yet during Sunday’s debate, Laschet seemed to be Baerbock’s enemy number one, making a CDU-Green coalition less likely. For Baerbock, Laschet’s stance on climate change was too evasive and hesitant, while the CDU frontrunner criticised her for her “politics that would put chains on industry’s feet and say, run faster.”

On Afghanistan, Baerbock accused the Grand Coalition of “ducking away” from major decisions while Scholz defended the government’s cautious approach – it hopes to find ways for those who couldn’t be evacuated in recent days to leave the country nonetheless. Here, it was Laschet who surprised his own party by calling Afghanistan not only “a disaster for the West” but also “a disaster for the German government”. According to media reports, Chancellor Angela Merkel was furious but refrained from directly contradicting Laschet as this would further undermine his position. All three candidates clashed on taxation, where both the SPD and the Greens are strictly against any lowering of rates – a key element of the CDU’s election promises.

While Laschet had a more aggressive drive at times, Scholz adopted an almost Merkel-esque pose, debating in a calm and down-to-earth style. “It sometimes seemed as if he had left the studio already”, said a commentator on the public broadcaster, ARD. Public opinion, however, was not overly sympathetic towards any of the three candidates. The general sentiment was that the first TV “triell” – which was broadcast by private channels RTL and N-TV – lacked substance and failed to provide clear answers to many pressing problems like Covid or education. Laschet and Scholz were also criticised for lacking a human touch, as only Baerbock allowed some emotion to shine through in her answers. Two more “triells” are scheduled before election day. On 12 September, Baerbock, Laschet and Scholz will face the questions of public broadcasters ARD and ZDF while on 19 September, private channels ProSieben and Sat.1 have the final go.

Whether or not these debates will have a noticeable effect on the election is unclear since record numbers of Germans have already opted for postal ballot. However, a survey conducted after the last general election in 2017 found that up to a quarter of voters made up their mind only on the big day itself.

One theme that won’t go away until 26 September is Laschet’s warning against a “red-red-green” coalition that would include not only the SPD and Greens but also the far-left Left party. He clashed with Scholz on this issue in the TV debate. On Tuesday, Laschet again criticised Scholz in a speech to industrial leaders for not ruling out teaming up with the party that has its powerbase in the Eastern German states. The CDU managed to run a successful campaign dubbed “Rote Socken” (red socks) which referred to the role of the party’s predecessor, the SED-PDS, as the ruling party in the German Democratic Republic in the 1990s. But today, the Left party has become much more mainstream, also attracting support in the West from voters disillusioned with the SPD.

Some in the CDU now fear that concentrating on a sequel to the “Rote Socken” campaign could be just another misstep by Laschet. This was highlighted in Sunday’s debate when Laschet did not manage to corner Scholz on the issue, but instead got tripped up by one of his own gags. Laschet pressed Scholz to categorically rule out such an outcome, demanding that he admit: “I won’t do it. Three words.” But in German, that’s four words.