German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives defeated their center-left rivals in a key state election Sunday in the country's most populous region.
Exit polls showed Merkel's Christian Democratic Union with a strong surge of support in North Rhine-Westphalia, the home state and traditional stronghold of her chief rival, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, who is challenging the German leader in the national election in late September.
Schulz conceded Sunday's loss, saying, "This is a difficult day for the Social Democrats, a difficult day for me personally as well. I come from the state in which we took a really stinging defeat today."
He urged his party to focus on the September 24 vote, saying, "We will sharpen our profile further. We have to as well."
The exit polls showed the Christian Democrats winning 34.5 percent of the vote in North Rhine-Westphalia, home to 17.9 million people, nearly a quarter of the German population, with the Social Democrats at 30.5 percent. Other parties trailed far behind the two leaders.
The conservatives' general-secretary, Peter Tauber, said the Christian Democratic Union "has won the heartland of the Social Democrats."