The election will pit center-right incumbent Angela Merkel against her current foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, from the left-leaning Social Democrat party.
At stake is whether Germany will chart a course out of recession with tax cuts and other business-friendly measures (Merkel) or pursue more state-led strategies such as funds for emerging industries, higher minimum wages and tighter regulations on executive pay (Steinmeier).
But many Germans have been left cold by both candidates. Playing on US President Obama's campaign theme, the German newspaper Bild ran an analysis of the debate with the mocking headline, "Yes, we gahn!" (Yes, we yawn).
Deutsche Welle called the debate "uninspiring" in a roundup of the German press reaction; other descriptions included "shop talk between the chancellor and her deputy," with "no real verbal sparring."
The Associated Press said surveys were mixed, and cited a political analyst saying that the "well-mannered duel" was unlikely to change many voters' minds.
Surveys carried out by three television stations after Sunday night's duel found that viewers rated it a virtual draw, two putting Steinmeier marginally ahead and one giving a slight advantage to the conservative Merkel.
The debate, like much of the campaign, lacked passion and personal attacks between rivals who govern together in a "grand coalition" of right and left — the result of an indecisive 2005 election.
He argued for new tax rules to deter high executive pay and bonuses, and for minimum wages to slow the growing gap between Germany's highest and lowest earners.
Mr. Steinmeier warned that the right-leaning government Ms. Merkel is seeking would pursue free-market policies of deregulation that he said had caused the global financial crash. "The thinking that got us into this crisis can't get us out of it," he said.
Merkel, by contrast, stuck to a pro-growth message, according to the Journal. The Journal said the candidates' only significant foreign policy difference was on German troop deployments in Afghanistan, which two-thirds of Germans oppose.
Steinmeier said Germany should by 2013 "lay the groundwork" for pulling its troops out; Merkel offered no timeline.