Erstwhile Merkel rival favourite for German president

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Chancellor Angela Merkel hopes her candidate for German president, longtime potential rival Christian Wulff, can help her shore up popular support for her ailing conservative government.

The preternaturally youthful Wulff, 51, has governed the state of Lower Saxony, home to automaker Volkswagen, since 2003 and is now the favourite to become Germany's youngest-ever president.

A high-profile perch, Lower Saxony was seen as a possible launch pad for Wulff to pose a challenge to a weakened Merkel, who critics say has weathered the euro crisis poorly.

If Wulff is elected, Merkel will have effectively neutralised him, at least for the four-year length of his term, by placing him in a golden cage far removed from the real instruments of political power.

The German president, ensconced in Berlin's sumptuous Bellevue Palace, serves as a kind of moral arbiter for the nation, receiving state guests and occasionally weighing in with contemplative speeches on the issues of the day.

Though popular with a significant national profile, the so-called "Kennedy from the Leine" after the river flowing through his state capital, Hanover, was never before called to serve in Berlin.

Observers say the genial Wulff does not have the killer instincts of a true political animal and is well-suited for the presidency.

"I lack the absolute will to power and the willingness to subordinate everything else," he famously said in a magazine interview in 2008 when asked whether his ambitions included laying down the gauntlet for Merkel.

Merkel, a fellow Christian Democrat (CDU), was thought to breathe a sigh of relief, as the blond trained lawyer with elegant dress style and a gentle sense of humour has demonstrated his appeal to voters.

He became active in the CDU at the age of 20, and was just 34 when he first challenged Gerhard Schroeder, who would later become chancellor, for the premiership of Lower Saxony.

It took him two tries but he eventually wrested control of the state in 2003 from Sigmar Gabriel, Schroeder's crown prince and current leader of the opposition Social Democrats.

Wulff has managed to maintain a "compassionate conservative" image while launching a fiscal austerity drive that cut spending for education. And he recently appointed Germany's first female state minister of Turkish origin.

He left his longtime wife Christiane in 2006 for public relations executive Bettina Koerner, who is 15 years his junior, and launched a charm offensive to mollify his conservative base after the shock announcement.

They are now married and have a two-year-old son, in addition to a teenage daughter from Wulff's previous marriage.

© 2010 AFP

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