By Patrick Donahue

Angela Merkel’s main challenger, Martin Schulz, sharpened his attack against the German chancellor less than five weeks before the election as his Social Democrats struggle to narrow the gap in polls that give her a dominant advantage.

Laying out his pitch in the northern German city of Bremen, where the Social Democrats have governed since 1945, Schulz called for greater social equality, slammed U.S. President Donald Trump and pledged greater public investment. The rally of over 1,000 SPD supporters was the first of at least 40 stops across the country before the Sept. 24 election.

“It’s being written and projected that the election is already done,” Schulz told the crowd on Monday. “But I tell you: polls are not results. You have the choice between a chancellor who avoids every debate about the future and somebody who tells you what he wants.”

The Social Democratic leader toughened his criticism of Merkel, accusing her Christian Democratic-led faction — and the chancellor personally — of blocking tightened rent regulations and refusing to address the gender pay gap. He attacked her for failing to shore up public pensions, “a declaration of war against an entire generation.”

Flanked by three state leaders from his party, Schulz sought to rally the base as he embarks on a cross-country tour, mostly in German cities where his party can count on support. His schedule this week takes him to Frankfurt, the financial capital, as well as Essen and Bochum in the industrial Ruhr Valley.

Polls show the task will be daunting. A weekly INSA poll for Bild newspaper’s Tuesday edition showed Merkel’s bloc gaining 1 percentage point to 38 percent, while the SPD dropped a point to 24 percent. INSA, which previously had the narrowest gap between the election rivals, is now in line with other polls showing Merkel’s bloc with a lead of 15-18 points. The two main parties, which have governed in a so-called grand coalition since 2013, were tied in the INSA poll at the beginning of April.

In his 52-minute speech late Monday, Schulz also slammed Trump, saying the president “doesn’t have the will to distance himself from Nazis,” a reference to Trump’s broadly criticized response to last week’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

As chancellor, Schulz said he would confront Trump more forcefully. He referenced Merkel’s statement at a Bavarian beer-tent rally in May, in which she indirectly upbraided Trump, saying the days of reliable U.S.-German relations “are to some extent over.”

“You can’t confront such a man with such a sentence,” Schulz said. “You have to tell him very clearly: this kind of politics is wrong and it will never be the kind of politics we have here in Germany.”

Schulz also went after car executives after the country’s diesel cheating scandal, saying the “arrogance of these people endangers the core of the German economy,” while insisting regular car owners be helped.

“I’m more concerned about the Golf drivers than golf players,” Schulz said.

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