BERLIN -- Nine days before Germany's widely watched national election, the two main candidates made contrasting waves with magazine covers on Friday.
Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic challenger, who has trailed Chancellor Angela Merkel in polls since declaring his candidacy last fall, caused a stir by appearing on the cover of the magazine of the Süddeutsche Zeitung gesturing with his middle finger.
The newspaper said this was his reaction when asked in a so-called "wordless interview" series for reaction to various nicknames he has been given, for instance Peerlusconi, a play on the name of the Italian billionaire politician Silvio Berlusconi.
The picture was taken on July 29, and aides to Mr. Steinbrück tried to stop publication, the newspaper said. But the candidate gave the go-ahead and posted on Twitter on Thursday evening that this was in the spirit of his campaign, a nationwide stump under the motto "Plain Talk."
By contrast, Ms. Merkel was acclaimed as leader of all Europe on the cover of The Economist.
"One woman to rule them all," the magazine announced, putting Ms. Merkel on a pedestal against a backdrop of symbols of a wilting Europe elsewhere: a drooping Eiffel Tower, a sinking Big Ben and a toppling Tower of Pisa.
The latest polls continued to show that while the race to form a governing alliance is still tight, Ms. Merkel has a strong lead over Mr. Steinbrück, her finance minister in her first coalition government from 2005 to 2009.
Accordingly, perhaps, Ms. Merkel's current government partners, the Free Democrats, who are hovering around the 5 percent threshold for parliamentary representation, were the most strident critics of Mr. Steinbrück's unusual photograph.
His gesture "is unworthy of a candidate for chancellor," said Philipp Rösler, the economics minister.
"That can't be the style of a chancellor," said Health Minister Daniel Bahr.
There was no immediate comment from Ms. Merkel. Nor did Mr. Steinbrück mention the controversy when he appeared in Munich on Thursday evening to bolster the Social Democrats in Bavaria, which will hold state elections on Sunday. That vote is widely seen as a portent for the federal elections one week later, in which Ms. Merkel is seeking a third term.
Bavaria's dominant party, the Christian Social Union, which governs in partnership with Ms. Merkel's Christian Democrats, is trying to win sole control in the southern state -- an achievement that could augur well for the conservatives on Sept. 22. It would, however, also strengthen the hand of the head of the Christian Social Union, Horst Seehofer, in any coalition negotiations with Ms. Merkel. The two are at odds in a campaign dispute over Mr. Seehofer's proposal to have foreigners pay tolls for the use of German highways.
Meanwhile, Germans took to social media to express their opinions of Mr. Steinbrück. Spiegel Online reported that more than 17,000 users voted on the gesture, with more than half saying Mr. Steinbrück had shown courage.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.