By Sara Webb and Thomas Escritt
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Subdued showings by Dutch Socialist leader Emile Roemer in televised election debates may just have tipped voters in favor of a broadly pro-European centre-right coalition government.
Next week's parliamentary election had been shaping up as a close contest between caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte's pro-euro and fiscally conservative Liberal Party, and its polar opposite, the old-style, hard-left Socialist Party.
With about a third of voters still undecided, according to some estimates, there is still plenty of room for change before the election on September 12, and the electorate remains divided over the main campaign issues - the euro zone crisis and the need for austerity measures at home.
But under the harsh glare of the television lights, the Dutch political landscape is changing. Since the debates over the past week or so, opinion polls have shown the Liberals pulling well ahead and the anti-austerity Socialists fighting for second place with the Labour Party, which has supported Rutte in parliament by voting for euro zone bailouts.
The blunt, hard-hitting debates focused on the euro zone crisis, and what it all means for Dutch home prices and the country's generous welfare benefits and pensions.
Rutte, nicknamed the "Teflon Prime Minister" in the press because he has survived a number of political disasters - most recently the collapse of his coalition in April - has cemented his lead in the polls since the debates.
But analysts say Socialist leader Roemer, whose down-to-earth manner was considered part of his appeal, came across as a political lightweight in the debates.
As a result, Roemer has lost ground to Diederik Samsom, the new Labour Party leader who impressed viewers with his polished debating and "prime ministerial" manner - or as one analyst put it, "he looks like the perfect son-in-law".
"Everyone was expecting Rutte and Roemer to clash, but it was Samsom who stood out," said Philip van Praag, a political analyst at the University of Amsterdam.
It was Samsom who ticked off the prime minister, saying: "Mr Rutte, if you want to campaign, you have to tell the truth about your own program, not lies about other parties' programs".
In a country with such a crowded political field, another coalition is certain after the election. At least 12 parties are running, including those representing devout Christians, people over the age of 50 and the interests of animals.
However, only leaders of the biggest parties contested the debates, and Samsom took a different line when the discussion turned to the bailout for Greece, which is unpopular with Dutch voters.
The other leaders swore they would not pay another euro to support the Greeks. But Samsom took a softer line on a Greek government request that it be allowed more time to meet budget targets set by its international lenders.
"If we want to give Greece a chance, then it may be ... that they'll ask if they can have another half year, and if it leads to a stronger Europe, I'll say yes," he said in the debate. "We have to make Europe more than a market and a currency."
Such frank comments won him praise. "I thought Diederik Samsom was very good," said Tony Heller, a business coach from Amsterdam who watched the debates. "He's quite new and people didn't know him that well until now."
AUSTERITY PLUS REFORM?
In August, a TNS Nipo poll put the Liberal Party neck-and-neck with the Socialists. However, two polls on Tuesday showed Rutte's Liberals would win 34 seats next week, making it the largest party in the 150-seat chamber.
Thanks to Samsom's performance, the Labour Party - often described as a social democrat party - is now challenging the Socialist Party for second place. One of Tuesday's polls showed them both winning 27 seats.
The Socialists and Labour both oppose austerity measures in the Netherlands and want more time to achieve the European Union's deficit target. However, Labour - unlike the Socialists - has supported the outgoing government in voting for the bailouts of struggling euro zone nations.
While campaigning in the southern town of Boxmeer at the weekend, Roemer told Reuters he didn't know why Samsom was doing better. "He (Samsom) did his debating very well, but voting is more than only winning a debating competition," he said.
Some analysts said that if this surge continues, Labour could even challenge the Liberals for first place. They predict that the next Dutch government will be a coalition between the Liberals, Labour, and one of the other parties at the centre of the political spectrum such as D66.
The Liberals and Labour would make a good fit, combining austerity measures with economic stimulus, said political analyst Andre Krouwel. "You will get a pro-European coalition that can agree on a stimulus package for education, infrastructure, and on the structural reform of the housing market and labour market," he said.
Many analysts are certain that Geert Wilders, an anti-immigration, eurosceptic politician who held considerable sway in the last government, could well be out of the picture since no other party wants him in their coalition.
It was Wilders who brought the last government down when he refused to sign off on a package of cuts needed to bring the budget deficit below 3 percent of gross domestic product by 2013.
With his bleached blond pompadour, Wilders always stands out in a crowd. His hectoring debating style involved interrupting and talking over the other contestants, with the occasional witty remark thrown in.
(Editing by xx)