BERLIN — The man hoping to beat Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany’s general election said Monday that his center-left Social Democrats have to be prepared for a tough campaign after suffering a heavy blow in their traditional heartland.

Martin Schulz’s Social Democrats lost Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union on Sunday. They had governed the state for all but five of the past 50 years.

Coming on top of two previous state election flops, it was a dismal signal for the party’s chances of winning back the chancellery from Merkel after 12 years.

“Until the general election on Sept. 24, we have a long and stony road ahead of us,” Schulz said.

Pressed on the issues he hoped to win over voters with in four months, the former European Parliament president indicated that his party would take a hard line in negotiations over Britain’s departure from the EU.

Schulz so far has focused heavily on “social fairness” and addressing perceived economic injustice at a time when the German economy is doing well.

Merkel said Monday that “we cannot rest on our laurels regarding the current situation in Germany,” but took a jab at the Social Democrats’ approach.

“The issue of fairness is, of course, very important but I am convinced that the Social Democrats are struggling with the concept of innovation and are getting things the wrong way round,” she said. “It’s about … shaping the future, and fairness develops from that.”

She added that “the big issue of security” will also be an important election theme.

National polls show the Social Democrats trailing Merkel’s conservatives by up to 10 points after drawing level earlier this year.

Schulz allies sought to take comfort in the fact that the defeat of North Rhine-Westphalia’s Social Democratic governor, Hannelore Kraft, was unexpected until recently.

“Incumbents are certainly not safe — incumbents can lose,” said Thomas Oppermann, the party’s national parliamentary leader. “That could happen to Ms. Merkel too.”

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