Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis failed to land a knockout blow against his socialist challenger in a TV debate seen as his last chance to close the gap on his rival ahead of a snap Oct. 4 election.
Most commentators saw no clear winner in Tuesday's debate, which was dominated by Greece's sharp economic slowdown, and said Karamanlis' attack on George Papandreou's program was too little too late to close a 7.5 percent gap in opinion polls.
Karamanlis, 53, had hoped to win the one-on-one confrontation with the soft-spoken socialist leader Papandreou.
"Karamanlis burnt his last card," the left-leaning Ta Nea newspaper said on its front page.
The conservative leader, who called an election half-way through his term saying he needed a stronger mandate to fight the economic crisis, attacked Papandreou on his programme of targeting high earners and helping the poor, saying it was full of empty promises which could not be financed.
"PASOK tries to deceive people by saying nice things and promising the earth, all of this in generalities and incoherence," he said in the debate, repeating his campaign line that Greece's ailing economy needs a tough medicine.
"The truth is that we have two tough years ahead of us and that we have to take really difficult decisions, political ones which are not pleasant," said Karamanlis, whose election programme includes a state salary and hiring freeze.
Papandreou, 57, said the conservatives had wasted voters' money during their five years in power, failing to take the right measures against the global crisis.
"There is a very clear dilemma: we will either have a government which will keep wasting the Greek people's money... or a government which will clean up the country, set up a fair tax system, allow the market to recover its breath," he said.
The PASOK leader also offered to send Karamanlis the Socialist party's manifesto in response to charges that the opposition had only adopted vague positions.
«There is bureaucracy, legal complexity, corruption and a lack of transparency,» said Papandreou. «What has the government done to improve public administration? Let me remind you of the cases that have dominated over the last six years: structured bonds, Cosmote, Vatopedi, Siemens and others.»
After years of robust growth, the Greek economy is decelerating sharply. Its budget deficit has ballooned to more than 6 percent of gross domestic product, well over the 3 percent allowed under EU rules.
Papandreou said fighting tax evasion would help finance a 2.5 to 3 billion euros ($3.70 billion to $4.44 billion) plan to kick-start the economy by boosting salaries and public investment to pour liquidity into the economy, together with cutting public waste.