That's what it may come down to as Germany's two biggest parties continue talks this week on forming a grand coalition.
Merkel's CDU won the vote, but by a much slimmer margin than expected. Schroeder's SDP, on the other hand, did much better than forecast.
Both Merkel and Schroeder are claiming the top job.
The two parties met on 22 September for exploratory talks on forming a unity government. After the meeting, the leader of the SDP, Franz Muenterfering, repeated his party's goal is to install Schroeder as chancellor.
"I have just [discussed our party's] goal [with Schroeder]," Muenterfering said. "[Our goal is] to govern with Mr. Schroeder as chancellor and to carry on as much as possible with our SDP policies."
Schroeder enraged Merkel after the vote by asserting his claim to continue as chancellor. According to German tradition, that job would normally go to the head of the party with the most votes -- in this case Merkel.
Yesterday, Schroeder came out in support of the grand coalition, but rejected pressure to drop his claim to continue as chancellor.
Nonetheless, Merkel's chances to head the government are growing. Reinhard Butikofer -- chairman of the Green Party, which was a member of Schroeder's ruling coalition -- said the CDU should name the next chancellor.
Merkel said last week that the upcoming talks would determine if the two parties had any common ground to form a grand coalition.
"I assume that we will make our positions clearer next week," Merkel said. "[During the current talks] we didn't discuss the issues -- that will be [discussed in the] further preliminary round. And then after that we will get to the point where we have to make a decision: who [we] can really begin coalition talks with."
The vote has left modern Germany in an unprecedented situation. The winner -- the CDU -- is far short of forming a coalition with its allies, the pro-business Free Democrats. The second-place Social Democrats are also shy of a parliamentary majority with their favored partners, the Greens. No one is willing to work with a new party, The Left party, which is made up mostly of former communists from the defunct East Germany.
Merkel has already ruled out trying to form of minority government with the Free Democrats. That combination would give the two parties only 45 percent of the seats in parliament, but it might have been tolerated with enough support from deputies in other parties. Merkel said, however, that such a coalition would not be in keeping with German tradition.
"We think a minority government would not suit Germany as an important country, and comply with our democratic traditions," Merkel said.
Moreover, efforts to form a three-party coalition have failed to make any progress.
Forming a government might be the easiest part. It's not clear what policies a new government would follow once in office.
Merkel's CDU had campaigned on the need to make sweeping cuts to the country's generous social and unemployment benefits as a way of stimulating the economy. Schroeder had also called for reforms, but clawed his way back into the election by warning that any cuts to welfare must be compatible with social justice.
It's not clear if the voters have really embraced the need for reform or not.