BERLIN German chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrueck has fallen far behind Angela Merkel in his campaign for 2013 elections, losing poll support with his abrasive style and a row over his lucrative speaking engagements.
Steinbrueck spent much of his first month as candidate for the Social Democrats (SPD) defending himself for earning 1.25 million euros moonlighting as an after-dinner speaker in three years - more than many SPD voters earn in a lifetime.
A apparent penchant for bludgeoning opponents outside and inside the center-left SPD has also sent his popularity into a tailspin, and dragged down the party too.
A poll by ARD television showed only 30 percent of Germans find Steinbrueck likeable, down 7 points since September, while Merkel's rating rose 9 points to 51. He fell three pegs to be ranked the country's sixth most popular politician.
This helped Merkel's conservatives open a 10-point lead over the SPD in the ARD poll, 10 months before federal elections next September - the biggest gap since January 2010.
"Steinbrueck has had a dreadful start," said Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at Cologne University.
"The issue of his speaking fees came at the worst possible time for the SPD. He could have cleared it all up before becoming the candidate.
"And his aggressive style doesn't work with women voters, especially when he's running against a woman," Jaeger added.
"To make matters worse, there's not a single woman on the team of close advisers he picked. He's made a lot of serious blunders."
Steinbrueck, who will be formally nominated by the SPD at a congress in Hanover next month, was once seen as the center left's best hope of winning back the chancellorship they last held under Gerhard Schroeder from 1998 to 2005.
A towering man with a booming voice, Steinbrueck was popular as the no-nonsense finance minister in Merkel's grand coalition from 2005 to 2009. The SPD hoped he would siphon centrist voters away from the conservatives.
But the controversy over his earning 1.25 million euros for 89 speeches has not died down, despite his attempt to defuse it by making public the full details of his income.
WOMEN DON'T LIKE HIM
Steinbrueck, whose sharp wit made him a coveted speaker and endears him to a certain segment of voters, has appeared to be a step behind the media frenzy over his sudden wealth.
This week he belatedly donated to charity one particularly lucrative fee of 25,000 euros, earned for a 2011 speech in the depressed town of Bochum.
"Steinbrueck can't seem to get beyond the dispute over his speaking fees," said Jaeger, the Cologne political scientist.
"He doesn't seem to be getting very good advice. His opponents will use this against him for months to come."
The average 7,300 euros per speech he netted after tax, three times what an average German earns per month, might not cause a stir in many countries. But it has angered many working class voters who feel he is out of touch.
A recent survey found only 35 percent of women voters in Germany would want to have dinner with Steinbrueck compared to 44 percent of the men voters.
He tried to turn the tables on the issue at a meeting on Thursday evening in Berlin with an informal group of SPD women called the "Red Women Salon".
"We can talk about everything," Steinbrueck said at the start of his 11-minute speech to the full house of women at the SPD headquarters, after spending an hour listening to their concerns.
He brought his 33-year-old daughter Anna, a Berlin lobbyist, to the gathering and won applause for saying he favored equal pay for women.
Party general secretary Andrea Nahles noted that U.S. President Barack Obama was reelected because of strong support from women: "Women made the difference."
Manuela Schwesig, a deputy leader of the SPD, was baffled by the idea that Steinbrueck has a problem with women. "We've never had so many women at the 'red salon' before," she said.
But Jaeger said Steinbrueck lacked Obama's obvious charm.
"He usually looks embittered for some reason," he said. "He's usually pictured with his arms crossed and a frown on his face. Maybe he's a very charming man in private. But the public image is of a really aggressive guy."
Yvonne Vay, a Berlin secretary, usually votes SPD but said she might switch to the Greens because of Steinbrueck: "The only way he can improve his image with women is to get an operation and come out looking more like George Clooney."
(Additional reporting by Holger Hansen; Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Stephen Brown)