By Anthony Deutsch
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The two men vying to become the next Dutch prime minister played down the option of governing together in a televised debate on Monday night as each made a last-ditch attempt to win over undecided voters two days before a general election.
But the tone of the debate between caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the Liberal Party leader, and Diederik Samsom of the moderate left opposition Labour Party, was less confrontational than during the preceding weeks.
The duo - who found common ground on issues from the euro to international affairs, but haggled over immigration, welfare and the housing market - are widely expected to be in coalition talks by the end of this week.
According to the latest opinion polls, the Liberals and Labour are in a dead heat after the leftist party made a surprising rebound in less than a month, and would need just one other party to form a coalition government together.
The run-up to the election has been dominated by the euro zone crisis, and is considered a microcosm of the wider European debate over austerity versus stimulus as a solution.
In his election campaign, Rutte promised voters Greece would not get any more money, whereas Samsom, who wants the Netherlands to be given more time to meet its own EU budget targets, said Greece may have to be given more time if it is to have a chance of staying in the euro.
Samsom, Labour's new leader, has emerged as the star of several televised debates over the past two weeks, propelling his party from fourth to joint first place.
To loud laughter from the audience, Rutte praised Samsom for winning so much ground saying he was now "the man in the polls who is breathing down my neck," while Samsom said he "doesn't know of another prime minister who faces problems so cheerfully - and that's a good thing because he creates a lot of them."
Some analysts predict Labour could even overtake the Liberals on election day.
The two parties have been coalition partners before but on Monday they downplayed the option of governing together, with Rutte saying that was an "unlikely" outcome.
The televised debate between Rutte, 45, and Samsom, 41, could prove crucial in winning over an estimated quarter of voters who are still undecided.
Live election debates on Dutch television have pulled in more than one million viewers each time, ranking them among the most watched programmes of the day, data from research unit Stichting Kijkonderzoek showed.
Rutte's pro-austerity Liberal Party, which promotes the interests of business in the trade-dependent economy, and Labour, more of a social democrat party, would each win 35 seats in the 150-seat parliament, a Maurice de Hond poll published on Monday evening showed.
Both the Liberals and Labour are pro-European and have supported euro zone bailouts, but while Rutte has taken a tough line on Greece and pushed budget cuts at home, Samsom has called for growth stimulus rather than "cold austerity" measures to pull out of the crisis.
A poll published in a Dutch daily newspaper on Monday found that Rutte, prime minister since October 2010 until his coalition collapsed in April 2012 over budget cuts, was the politician who would best serve Dutch interests in Europe.
He scored highest on leadership and competence, with 52 percent of those surveyed saying he was a "real leader", while only 41 percent saw Samsom in those terms. Just over three-quarters, or 76 percent, of those surveyed said what the country really needed now was a "brave and dedicated leader".
"Rutte is the man we can best send to Brussels to get the most for the Netherlands from the bureaucrats: the Liberal Party leader scores best on qualities including 'competence' and 'real leadership'," said De Volkskrant, which commissioned the poll and which is and which is generally considered a left-leaning publication.
Rutte's government collapsed when his chief ally, the anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders, refused to support further austerity measures to meet European Union budget targets.
Dutch voters are divided over the demands for massive bailouts for Europe's so-called budget sinners, particularly Greece, and for austerity measures at home that chip away at their cherished welfare benefits.
The Netherlands has long been regarded as a core euro zone member and one of Germany's staunchest allies in pushing for fiscal discipline.
(Additional reporting by Gilbert Kreijger, Thomas Escritt, and Sara Webb; Editing by Andrew Osborn)