STRALSUND, Germany — Only days before Germans cast their ballots for a new Parliament and with it a new government and leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel was on the campaign trail this week — further proof that her conservatives are in a perilous position.
Ms. Merkel, of course, is no longer a candidate. She is stepping down and had hoped to stay away from the race. But instead she spent Tuesday in her own district stumping for the struggling candidate for her Christian Democratic Union, Armin Laschet. She even quipped about her smaller-than-average shoe size, hoping to convince voters that those shoes are best filled by Mr. Laschet.
For weeks, polls have shown a lead for the Social Democratic Party, traditional rivals of the conservative Christian Democrats yet also their governing partners. But in the final week before Sunday’s vote, the conservatives have narrowed the gap to roughly three percentage points.
The Christian Democrats are Germany’s largest political party and for decades have been the country’s most dominant political force. Despite their current second-place situation, they have a reputation for being strong closers, which is giving Mr. Laschet hope after an underwhelming campaign. The Green party, the unexpected early leaders in the race, are in third place at the moment.
The Social Democrats are running one of their strongest election campaign in years, marked by clear messaging on progressive issues from increasing the minimum wage to creating more affordable housing. And their front-runner candidate, Olaf Scholz, has been selling himself as the best fit for Ms. Merkel’s shoes.
“Social democracy is back,” said Andrea Römmele, dean of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.
For years, the Social Democrats were the forgotten junior partner in the government, and Ms. Merkel often managed to win praise for ideas that they actually put forward, such as introducing a national minimum wage and allowing same-sex marriage.
“In this election, the S.P.D. has succeeded in talking about their achievements while in government and to get credit for it,” Ms. Römmele said.
A lack of a strong narrative has been one of the biggest problems nagging Mr. Laschet, who is the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia and leader of the Christian Democratic Union. His campaign has been marred by blunders that have led critics to question his professionalism and ability to lead.
This week, he came under criticism again. On Tuesday, he released a new campaign video in which he is seen trying to calmly deal with a well-known anti-vaccine protester. But if he hoped the ad would show his diplomatic skills, it instead brought criticism of poor taste, because it was released days after a coronavirus denier shot and killed a 20-year-old gas station attendant who refused the man service because he did not wear a mask.
Speaking to the several hundred people who had gathered late Tuesday on the wet cobblestones of the Old Market Square in this city on the Baltic Sea coast, which Ms. Merkel has represented since 1990, Mr. Laschet honored the victim, then chided the several dozen anti-vaccine demonstrators who had shown up to protest the government with shouts and whistles.
“We do not want this violence,” he said. But neither his condemnation nor his pledge to increase security elicited much applause. He also didn’t manage to silence the noise beyond the barriers.
The rally was meant to shore up support for Mr. Laschet, but for townspeople and tourists alike, it turned into an opportunity to catch a last glimpse of the woman whose outsize role in their country and in Europe has influenced their lives since November 2005.
Christine Braun, a member of the Christian Democrats in Stralsund, said that Mr. Laschet would be getting her vote, but he was not the reason she was standing in the driving rain on a chilly September night.
“I came to honor Ms. Merkel, our chancellor and representative,” she said, adding that throughout her 30 years representing the constituency, Ms. Merkel would visit regularly, attending meetings and engaging with the community. “She remained approachable and down-to-earth.”
Vilana Cassing and Tim Taugnitz, both students in their early 20s, were vacationing in Stralsund and saw the posters advertising the event and Ms. Merkel’s attendance. They decided to attend more out of curiosity to see the woman who had shaped their lives than out of political interest.
They described their political leanings as “leftist-Green,” saying they would vote on Sunday, but not for Mr. Laschet.
“I think it is good if the Christian Democrats go into opposition,” Mr. Taugnitz said.
That could happen. On Sunday, voters will go to the polls, though many may have already done so, with the pandemic resulting in an unusually high number of requests for mail-in ballots — a form of voting that has been around in Germany since 1957 and that organizers assure is safe.
Should the Social Democrats emerge as the strongest party, they would still need to find at least one partner to form a government. While that means that the roles could be reversed, with the Christian Democrats as the junior partners under Mr. Scholz, more likely is a center-left alliance led by the Social Democrats together with the Greens and the business friendly Free Democrats.
Mr. Laschet has been warning against the threat posed by such an alliance, seeking to paint the other parties as a danger to the prosperity that Germans have enjoyed under Ms. Merkel.
“It’s completely wrong what the S.P.D. and the Left and the Greens are planning,” Mr. Laschet told the crowd on Tuesday, referring to pledges to increase taxes on the country’s highest earners. “They should invest and create jobs.”
Ms. Merkel instead sought to praise Mr. Laschet and Georg Günther, who hopes to win the seat in Parliament that she is vacating after 30 years, for their achievements. She expressed confidence that both men would continue the course that she had set and urged her supporters to back them.
“Several times today I have reported my shoe size,” Ms. Merkel told the crowd in Stralsund. Nodding to Mr. Günther and smiling, she said that he could “manage” to fill her shoes — European size 38, or U.S. 7 and a half. Then she turned to Mr. Laschet and added, “he is the one who can do it,” at the chancellery.
Listening from the sidelines, Thilo Haberstroh, a native of the southwestern city of Karlsruhe who was in Stralsund on business and only happened on the rally by chance, said he wasn’t convinced that anyone in the running had what it takes to be the next chancellor of Germany.
“This was interesting, but none of them have really made an impression on me,” he said. “I still don’t know who will get my vote on Sunday.”