The race to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor is wide open, but the rivals all face the same tough challenge: how do you stand out, overshadowed by such a political colossus?
Mrs Merkel has dominated German politics for 16 years as chancellor. Her would-be successors have to make their mark before the September federal election.
Here is a quick guide to who they are, with an assessment by our correspondent Damien McGuinness, in Berlin, of the chances they have.
Armin Laschet, centre-right CDU/CSU
He was the front runner but his campaign has foundered, mostly as a result of his own unforced errors.
Mr Laschet, 60, is the leader of Chancellor Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and premier of heavily industrial North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany’s most populous state.
He only narrowly secured the nomination to be the candidate for chancellor, defeating his Bavarian rival, Markus Söder, after the party leadership rallied behind him.
Support for the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, was already waning because of the pandemic. Mr Laschet himself was accused of inconsistencies and poor management of Covid-19 in NRW.
And then in July, Mr Laschet was caught on camera laughing as the president of Germany made a speech in a town which had been largely destroyed by catastrophic flooding. His reputation was badly damaged and has not recovered.
One poll on 2 September indicated the CDU/CSU had slipped to a record low of 20%, overtaken by the SPD on 25%. Another, on 31 August, suggested just 10% of voters would prefer Mr Laschet as chancellor over his rivals.
The son of a miner, and a lawyer by training, for years Mr Laschet defended Germany’s powerful coal industry. He has stood by the decision not to bring forward the end of using coal for energy from 2038.
He is well-connected internationally and is firmly pro-EU: he served as a Euro MP and hails from Aachen, a border city with strong French ties.
In 2005 he became minister for integration in his home region, the first such post in Germany, and forged strong ties with its large ethnic Turkish community. He firmly backed Mrs Merkel’s lenient but controversial policy on immigration in 2015, when more than a million migrants reached Germany.
The Catholic Church was a strong influence on him as a boy, through his devout parents and his Church-run school. He is married, with three adult children.
What are his chances? Armin Laschet has abruptly dropped any pretence at being a Merkel-style centrist and come out as a traditionalist right-wing fighter, writes the BBC’s Damien McGuinness in Berlin. His conservative allies are thrilled, but it’s a sign of how badly his campaign is doing.
Until recently the CDU/CSU had hoped to win over Germany’s middle-ground, and ideally score over 30%. That now seems unfeasible. So Armin Laschet is suddenly tacking right, and catering to core conservatives. The party would now settle for the low 20s on election night – as long as it’s just a few percentage points more than left-wing rivals.
It’s a risky tactic, given elections are usually won in the centre ground. But it might still just make Mr Laschet Germany’s next chancellor.
Annalena Baerbock, Greens
The only woman in the race to succeed Angela Merkel, she is the Greens’ first-ever candidate for chancellor.
A former trampoline champion from a village outside the northern city of Hanover, Ms Baerbock, 40, studied law and politics in Hamburg and London and worked for the Greens in the European Parliament.
Earlier this year, the Green surged in the polls, with support rising above 25% and a focus on Ms Baerbock. However, her reputation was tarnished when she was accused of plagiarism and padding her CV.
She has been an MP in the Bundestag since 2013, and as a mother of two young daughters has campaigned strongly on family issues as well as the environment. She advocates a tougher stance towards both China and Russia than either the CDU/CSU or the Social Democrats.
Ms Baerbock has never held a ministerial post, but argues that she is therefore untainted by German “status quo” politics, which she wants to transform.
Despite their candidate’s difficulties, the Greens are still widely tipped to be part of the next governing coalition. Ms Baerbock and her co-leader Robert Habeck have a reputation for enforcing discipline in a party with a history of splits between centrists and radicals.
What chances? Of the three main candidates, Ms Baerbock is currently the least likely to become chancellor, but her party is well on track to entering government.
After initial slips in the campaign, she has managed to shift the focus away from personality and conservative clichés about middle-class Green do-gooders trying to ban German sausages and cars.
The debate has moved towards concrete policy, where Ms Baerbock is more confident. Climate change is a key issue for German voters, so other parties are unconvincingly pushing their environmental credentials, giving a clear boost to the Green Party’s own chances of entering government.
Olaf Scholz, centre-left Social Democrats (SPD)
Like Armin Laschet, Olaf Scholz, 62, has had a succession of senior posts in German politics. He is currently German finance minister and Chancellor Merkel’s deputy.
Unlike Mr Laschet, his chances of becoming chancellor have soared during the election campaign. He is seen as a safe pair of hands, having first served as an MP from 1998 to 2011.
After a successful stint as mayor of Hamburg (2011-2018), when he rebalanced the city’s troubled finances, he returned to the Bundestag.
He hails from Osnabrück in north-western Germany and entered politics as a Socialist Youth leader, having studied labour law. In SPD ranks he is seen as a conservative. He and his wife, Britta Ernst, do not have children.
He has overseen the emergency €750bn (£647bn; $904bn) funding package put together by the federal government to help German businesses and workers survive the pandemic.
“This is the bazooka that’s needed to get the job done,” he said. He is generally seen to have performed well in the pandemic, which has strained German finances and businesses.
His stolid, unflashy demeanour gave rise to the unflattering nickname “Scholz-o-mat” – but that image of reliability has struck a chord with risk-averse Germans seeking a continuation of the stability of the Merkel era.
A recent opinion poll for broadcaster ZDF indicated Mr Scholz was the first choice for chancellor of 49% of voters, compared to 17% for Mr Laschet and 16% for Ms Baerbock. And his party is also riding high: after years in the doldrums, the latest polls regularly put the SPD ahead of the CDU/CSU.
What chances? This is the first German election since 1949 without an incumbent able to take advantage of the vote-winning “chancellor bonus”, as it’s called in German. Deputy Chancellor Scholz has stepped into that void. He may be in a rival party, but Olaf Scholz is managing to portray himself as the Merkel continuity candidate.
His sober, unflappable style and ability to talk in ambiguous, content-free sentences reminds voters of the woman he has worked with for so many years. It doesn’t make for excitement. But judging by the polls, centrist German voters find it reassuring.
The other players
Whatever the outcome after 26 September, Germany’s next government will be a coalition. It will involve either the CDU/CSU or the Social Democrats, and very possibly the Greens, but there are three other parties in the mix.
The Free Democrats (FDP), free-market liberals
Whether the SPD or the centre-right come out ahead, they might well need the support of the pro-business FDP to govern.
In 2017, the FDP walked out of coalition talks with the CDU/CSU and Greens, saying “it is better not to rule than to rule badly”.
Current polls put the FDP on 9-11%. Its candidate for chancellor is Christian Lindner, 42.
He joined the party in 1995 and became an MP in 2009. He studied political science at Bonn University and is a reserve officer in the armed forces.
In the pandemic he has sharply criticised the lockdown restrictions, saying they ought to be more tightly targeted, accompanied by more efficient testing. Poor crisis management, he said, had changed Germany’s image from “efficiency superstar” to “bureaucratic monster”.
His slogan is to make Germany “more modern, more digital and freer”. The FDP wants lower taxes and more emphasis on individual initiative.
What chances? The FDP feels its moment may have come. The self-confident Mr Lindner overplayed his hand four years ago, and was accused of shirking responsibility when he flounced out of coalition talks.
Since then he has managed to re-establish the FDP’s traditional reputation as a modernising force, keen to rein in Germany’s ever-expanding bureaucracy. As such, the party potentially has the ability to work with either centre-left or centre-right parties. If Mr Lindner manages to keep his cool this time, the party could rediscover its long-standing role as coalition kingmaker.
Far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD)
The anti-immigration AfD was elected to the Bundestag for the first time in 2017. Riding a wave of voter frustration and anger over the migrant crisis, it became the main opposition party and now has 91 seats.
It has since fallen in the polls and is now on about 10%. Its two leading candidates are Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla.
The AfD is hostile to the EU and sees Islam as a threat to German culture and traditions. Even before Covid, the party’s support was shrinking, as voter concerns about immigration receded.
The AfD has been in the news for rejecting Covid restrictions and holding a party conference face-to-face, not remotely. Many in the party see the restrictions as a gross violation of personal liberty. Party leaders have called for an end to lockdown measures and compulsory masking.
It is also calling for Germany to leave the EU and for the return of border controls, including physical measures such as fences.
One of the few safe predictions in this election race is that the AfD won’t enter government. Its nativist rhetoric makes the party toxic to most Germans – its election slogan, “Germany, but normal”, implies minorities don’t belong.
All other parties have ruled out going into coalition with the AfD. Since it was founded in 2013, the party has split numerous times, each time becoming more radical and losing mainstream voters. But the supporters they do still have are loyal, and in some constituencies that feel left behind, the AfD could win the most votes.
Hard-left Die Linke (the Left)
Die Linke is once again being talked about as part of a possible coalition. The party was formed out of the remnants of the old East German socialist party and disaffected left-wingers who left the SPD in the mid-noughties.
Die Linke is on about 6% in the polls, just above the 5% threshold to enter the Bundestag. Its main candidates are Janine Wissler and Dietmar Bartsch.
The party is campaigning for increases in pensions and the minimum wage and an end to the system that cuts benefits for the long-term unemployed. It also wants to withdraw all German soldiers from international military missions.
Although Die Linke has its share of anti-capitalist radicals, it also leads a state government in Thuringia. Bodo Ramelow has been premier of the eastern state since 2014.
Die Linke has no chance of putting forward a chancellor, but the latest polls suggest it could, at least numerically, enter a left-wing government with the SPD and the Greens.
The party’s anti-Nato stance would be a major stumbling block. But as the Greens and the SPD plane down any radical edges, Die Linke is increasingly attractive to left-wingers who accuse the other two parties of selling out.