AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the Liberal Party leader, will face off on television against Diederik Samsom of the moderate left opposition Labor Party, in a last-ditch attempt to claw back the lead on Monday night, just two days before an election.
The Liberals and Labor are in a dead heat, according to the latest opinion polls, after the leftist party made a surprising rebound in less than a month.
Samsom, the party's new leader, has emerged as the star of several televised debates over the past two weeks, propelling his party from fourth place to equal lead.
Some analysts predict Labor could even overtake the Liberals on election day, and although both parties have played down the prospect of forming a coalition, they have been partners before and are considered likely coalition partners after the September 12 election.
Prime Minister Rutte, 45, and Samson, 41, will go head to head late on Monday night in a debate that could prove decisive.
The live election debates on Dutch television have pulled in more than one million viewers each time, ranking them among the most watched programs 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 Labor, 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, identical to an Ipsos Synovate poll published on Saturday night.
But 27 percent of those surveyed are still undecided, according to the poll, which could still throw up a surprise result at the last minute.
Both the Liberals and Labor 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 by TNS Nipo and University of Amsterdam 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.
The run-up to the parliamentary election on September 12 has been dominated by the euro zone crisis, and is considered a microcosm of the wider European debate over austerity versus stimulus as the way out of the debt crisis.
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.
In his election campaign, Rutte promised voters Greece would not get any more money, whereas Samsom, who wants the Netherlands to be granted longer to meet the EU budget targets, has said Greece may have to be given more time if it is to have a chance of staying in the euro.
(Reporting by Gilbert Kreijger, Thomas Escritt, and Sara Webb; Editing by Will Waterman and Michael Roddy)