By Noah Barkin
BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrueck travelled to eastern Germany on Saturday to try to calm a storm over his recent comments suggesting opponent Angela Merkel lacked passion for Europe because she grew up in the former communist East.
The Social Democrat (SPD) trails Merkel's conservatives by some 15 points in opinion polls with just six weeks left until a German election, and has been searching desperately for issues that might help him narrow the gap.
But his campaign has been dogged by gaffes, including the latest remarks, which infuriated some east Germans and drew rebukes from parties across the political spectrum.
At an SPD campaign event in the eastern city of Halle, Steinbrueck told his audience that the comments, made in a newspaper interview earlier this week, had been misconstrued and he praised easterners as "capable and hard-working people".
"I certainly did not mean to suggest that people who grew up in the East have an innate or regionally-determined distance to Europe," he said. "And I ask you to please not understand the remarks this way."
Roughly a fifth of German voters live in the former communist East. The SPD has not done well there in past elections. In 2009, they won roughly 18 percent of the eastern vote, compared to nearly 30 percent each for Merkel's conservatives and the far-left "Linke" party.
During the euro zone debt crisis, some of Germany's partners and domestic critics have accused Merkel of focusing too much on German interests, and lacking the passion for Europe that drove previous chancellors like Helmut Kohl, who pushed Germany into the euro.
Some have suggested it is a generational phenomenon - she is the first German leader to have been born after World War Two. Others point to her upbringing in the communist East, where European integration was not the major topic it was in the West.
In the Tagesspiegel interview, Steinbrueck was asked about comments by another former chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, that Merkel lacked passion for Europe.
"That is right," Steinbrueck said. "The interesting question is whether this is because she grew up in the GDR (German Democratic Republic) and therefore the European project is more distant for her than a politician who grew up in the West."
He added in the interview that he was not accusing Merkel of anything, as she had not chosen which side of the Iron Curtain she grew up on. That has not spared him from criticism.
Members of Merkel's party, keen to score political points before the vote, have accused Steinbrueck of insulting millions of people from East Germany and central Europe.
Even the SPD's allies have weighed in, with the head of the Greens, Juergen Trittin, saying in a weekend interview with the Welt am Sonntag newspaper: "Frau Merkel's European policies are bad, but not because she comes from the GDR."
(Additional reporting by Holger Hansen; editing by Mike Collett-White)