BERLIN (AP) -- Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative-led coalition was in a dead heat Sunday with Germany's center-left opposition in a state election that was a major test ahead of a national vote later this year.
Lower Saxony, a region of 8 million people in northwestern Germany, has been run for the past decade by a coalition of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union and the pro-market Free Democrats, the same parties that form the national government.
The 58-year-old Merkel will seek a third, four-year term in a parliamentary election expected in September. She and her party are riding high in the polls, but the opposition hopes the Lower Saxony vote will show that she is vulnerable.
Projections for ARD and ZDF television, based on exit polls and partial counting, showed Merkel's CDU winning just over 36 percent in Sunday's election for a new state legislature in Lower Saxony and the Free Democrats getting about 10 percent.
The opposition Social Democrats and Greens — who hope to oust them from the regional government — had support of about 32.5 percent and 13.5 percent respectively, according to the projections.
Before the election, the question had been whether the Free Democrats, whose support has eroded badly since they joined Merkel's national government in 2009, would win the 5 percent needed to gain seats in the state legislature. Polls over recent months had suggested that they might not.
But tactical voting by supporters of Merkel's conservatives, who polled more than 42 percent in Lower Saxony's last election in 2008, appeared to have saved the Free Democrats.
That may calm intense speculation over whether the Free Democrats would force out their leader, Vice Chancellor Philipp Roesler, whose home state is Lower Saxony.
He proclaimed Sunday "a great day" for his party.
Merkel and her party have been bolstered nationally by a relatively robust economy, low unemployment and the chancellor's hard-nosed handling of Europe's debt crisis. The Free Democrats, meanwhile, have taken much of the blame for frequent government infighting.
Merkel has also profited from stumbles by the Social Democrats' candidate for chancellor, Peer Steinbrueck, a former finance minister who drew criticism for saying that the chancellor earns too little — adding to the controversy over his own high earnings from speeches.
His party improved a little on its feeble performance five years ago in Lower Saxony and their allies, the Greens, made bigger gains.
Opposition leaders argued that, whoever ended up in the governor's office, their overall gains and the losses for the center-right showed that a change of government is possible in Berlin.
Steinbrueck conceded that his recent troubles hadn't helped, though.
"I am well aware that there was no tailwind from Berlin, and I am also aware that I bear a certain share of responsibility for that," he told supporters.
But the Social Democrats' national general secretary, Andrea Nahles, said Steinbrueck would "of course" remain Merkel's challenger.
Two parties that have drained support from the center-left over recent years, the Left Party and the Pirate Party, failed to get enough votes Sunday to enter Lower Saxony's legislature.