By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN (Reuters) - In a country where flashing the middle finger can cost motorists a heavy fine and ended one soccer star's international career, Peer Steinbrueck may have hurt his slim chances of becoming Germany's next chancellor by showing the "Stinkefinger".
Angela Merkel's Social Democrat (SPD) challenger has had to defend himself over a magazine cover picture in which he points his left middle finger into the air, in a wordless response to a question about his campaign gaffes.
"It's hard to imagine all the things that you can do wrong," he said unapologetically in response to the strong reaction to the picture, published nine days ahead of the September 22 election.
Steinbrueck, who had risen slightly in opinion polls - though still lagging way behind the popular Merkel - insisted the gesture was meant as a joke as part of Sueddeutsche Zeitung magazine's weekly series of wordless picture interviews.
"You're asked a question and supposed to answer with gestures and emotions. So you act. I hope this country has enough of a sense of humor to understand the gestures in the context of the question. Without humor, where are we headed?"
The gesture looked especially incongruous from a bespectacled and balding 66-year-old former finance minister, who usually appears in a sober dark suit and tie.
Rude gestures and four-letter words might be part of everyday life in some countries, but Germans are remarkably restrained when it comes to obscenities. Motorists can be fined up to 4,000 euros for making the finger gesture.
Stefan Effenberg was thrown off Germany's international soccer team in 1994 after he flipped a middle finger to a group of jeering fans as he left the pitch during a World Cup match.
Not everyone thought the fuss over the finger would hurt Steinbrueck's campaign. Richard Hilmer, head of the Infratest-Dimap pollsters, said it might even appeal to younger voters.
"I wish Germans could be a little bit more relaxed about things like this," said Werner Patzelt, a political scientist at Dresden's Technical University, adding that the SPD candidate's campaign had been littered with blunders.
"He didn't give anyone the dirty finger. There's a big difference between Steinbrueck and Effenberg."
Merkel's centre-right coalition, growing nervous as the race tightens, hoped Steinbrueck's gesture would reinforce the impression held by some German voters that his occasional lack of self-control made him unsuitable for leadership.
Her spokesman said he had "nothing to say" about it, but some of Merkel's conservatives (CDU) and their Free Democrat (FDP) allies seized a chance to ridicule Steinbrueck, who has gained from a string of strong recent debating performances.
"Someone who can't control his emotions shouldn't be in control of our country," said Christian Lindner, an FDP leader. Wolfgang Bosbach, a CDU leader in parliament, added: "Anyone who does that before an election doesn't really want to win."
In a call-in survey for N-TV news, 67 percent of viewers said Steinbrueck had gone too far, but an online poll by Spiegel magazine found that about half of the 17,000 people who took part said they admired his audacity.
Steinbrueck authorized the picture for publication over the objections of his media adviser.
"He's got some rough edges. I'm not sure he's the right man to be chancellor," said Berlin resident Michael Krocker.
"It's horrible," said a retired woman who declined to give her name. "We're not allowed to give anyone the finger on the road and yet he gets away with it."
(Additional reporting by Sophie Duvernoy; editing by Stephen Brown and Andrew Roche)