By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrueck was widely criticized on Sunday, even by his own center-left Social Democrats (SPD), for saying German leaders were underpaid.
Steinbrueck has struggled to gain ground against Chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of next September's election, in part due to lingering criticism over him earning 1.25 million euros ($1.65 million) as an after-dinner speaker in the past three years.
The remarks from the former finance minister about what he called the inadequate compensation for the chancellor drew speedy rebukes across the country's political spectrum, including from the last SPD chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
"A German chancellor does not earn enough based on the performance that is required of her or him compared with the jobs of others who have far less responsibility and far more pay," Steinbrueck, 65, was quoted on Sunday by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper saying.
"Nearly every savings bank director in North Rhine-Westphalia earns more than the chancellor does," Steinbrueck said of his home state.
Merkel's pay is set to rise by 930 euros per month to 17,106 euros in 2013 along with pay rises for her ministers and members of parliament, increases that have been criticized by some for sending the wrong signal in an era of austerity.
"Some of the debates kicked up by the 'guardians of public virtue' are grotesque and are harmful for anyone considering getting involved in politics," Steinbrueck said.
The SPD trails Merkel's conservatives by 10 points in opinion polls, but, with its Greens allies, it does have a chance of winning power in September because of the prolonged weakness of Merkel's Free Democrat (FDP) coalition partners.
Steinbrueck, whose blunt talk makes him popular among some voters despite him never winning a major election and him being defeated as state premier in North Rhine-Westphalia in 2005, said there were times in his career when he was not as well off and admitted he was now a "wealthy Social Democrat".
Schroeder, chancellor from 1998 to 2005, has endorsed Steinbrueck to lead his party against Merkel but distanced himself from Steinbrueck's views on pay.
"In my view politicians in Germany are adequately compensated," Schroeder told Bild am Sonntag newspaper. "I was certainly always able to live off the pay. And anyone who doesn't feel it's enough pay can always look for another job."
Other SPD leaders indirectly criticized Steinbrueck. Dieter Wiefelspuetz, a top SPD member of parliament, said politicians were misguided if they compared their wages to private industry.
"To serve as chancellor is a fascinating job and the pay is definitely not shabby," he said.
Steinbrueck was once seen as the center-left's best hope of winning back the chancellorship. He was popular as the no-nonsense finance minister and 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 will not go away and his campaign has been marred by setbacks and awkward comments.
Analysts say he is also struggling to win over female voters, many of whom are put off by his combative style.
"Merkel is popular due to a 'woman's bonus' that she gets," Steinbrueck told the paper.
(Editing by Alison Williams)