By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN (Reuters) - German chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrueck, fighting an uphill battle to oust Angela Merkel, sacked his chief spokesman Michael Donnermeyer on Monday, the latest sign of disarray in his campaign just 104 days before the September 22 election.
A senior source in the Social Democrats (SPD) told Reuters that Steinbrueck had decided to part company with Donnermeyer, a key ally who had previously worked as the spokesman for Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit and former SPD leader Franz Muentefering.
The SPD trail Merkel's conservatives in opinion polls by about 15 points, and although the former finance minister has enjoyed several gaffe-free months, early campaign mistakes continue to dog him.
Donnermeyer has been blamed for the woes, in particular failing to protect Steinbrueck from damaging statements he made in an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS) in December.
A couple of months after the interview, there was an initial shakeup of the campaign team with Andrea Nahles, a senior SPD official with a history of tense ties to Steinbrueck, gaining power at the expense of Donnermeyer and others.
"It wasn't working with Donnermeyer," an SPD party source said. In Germany, the chief spokesman of a candidate plays an important role in the campaign and is closely involved in strategy decisions.
Donnermeyer will be replaced by Rolf Kleine, a former journalist at Bild newspaper, sources said.
Steinbrueck is hardly the first chancellor candidate to sack his spokesman shortly before the election. In typical "shoot-the-messenger" style, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl fired his spokesman Peter Hausmann four months before the 1998 election.
Kohl was defeated by SPD challenger Gerhard Schroeder.
The SPD had high hopes of beating Merkel when Steinbrueck was nominated last year. He was seen as a no-nonsense, straight-talking conservative voice in the left-leaning SPD who could siphon away middle-of-the-road voters from Merkel.
But Steinbrueck's message has been clouded by controversy. First he got mired in a row over his earning 1.25 million euros in fees as an after-dinner speaker in recent years and he bungled the ensuing public debate about it.
Just as that issue was beginning to fade, Steinbrueck fanned a new controversy, telling the FAS that German chancellors were underpaid and that Merkel was so popular because she was a woman.
Donnermeyer was severely criticized in the SPD for failing to spot the dangers of those comments when "authorizing" the interview, a common practice in Germany where interviewees and their spokesmen are given an opportunity to delete controversial passages before publication.
After the row over his lucrative speaking engagements, the comments on chancellor pay reinforced the image of Steinbrueck as out of touch with the heart of his left-leaning party, whose central election campaign theme is "social justice".
"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 said in the newspaper interview.
(Additional reporting by Max Heinemann and Holger Hansen; Editing by Noah Barkin)