Exit polls project German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) will win Sunday's state election in North Rhine-Westphalia, setting themselves up for a victory in the general election this September.
Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Martin Schulz (C) speaks after the publication of the preliminary results of the regional elections in the West German state of North Rhine-Westphalia at the headquarters of the SPD in Berlin on May 14, 2017.
The SPD is banking its hopes on incumbent state premier Hannelore Kraft, 55, who secured 39.1 percent in a 2012 vote, while the CDU clinched just over 26 percent.
But the results marked a huge blow to Martin Schulz, who had generated a strong surge in support for the SPD when he took over the party in February.
The land election in North Rhine - Westphalia called "small universal" or dress rehearsal for a vote on September 24, when Germany will elect a new Bundestag, and he then - Chancellor.
But the recent setbacks dimmed the halo of Schulz since he failed to transform his popularity into votes. "That makes it thrilling to the last second". He said that "We will sharpen our profile further - we have to as well".
"There is a real chance that we can win".
"This is a great day for North Rhine-Westphalia", Armin Laschet, CDU's top candidate in the state, told Deutsche Welle.
An election Sunday in Germany's most populous state is serving as a prelude to September's national vote.
Kraft said she took "personal responsibility for this defeat" before announcing her decision to step down.
Political analyst Oskar Niedermayer also noted the state's significance to the SPD, noting that "a defeat there would be a disastrous symbol" for the party.
The western state, which includes Cologne, Duesseldorf and the Ruhr industrial region, is a traditional stronghold of Schulz's Social Democrats.
He argued that many people are struggling in temporary or low-paid jobs even though the country as a whole is growing richer. It is Schulz's home territory, though he isn't on the ballot, and home to 17.9 million people, almost a quarter of Germany's population.
In Haltern am See last Wednesday, she took aim at Mr Schulz's arguments, saying the CDU offers "justice in the sense of jobs, strong budgets, funds for local communities".
But he urged the party to concentrate on the national election.
The CDU focused its campaign in NRW on attacking the SPD for failing to tackle local issues like crumbling infrastructure that causes huge traffic jams, rising crime and an underperforming education system.
Germany's right-wing nationalist party, Alternative für Deutschland, won a little over 7 percent of Sunday's vote and will therefore have representation in the NRW parliament.