BERLIN (Reuters) - A potential rival to conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel could spring to national prominence later this month if she clinches victory for the Social Democrats (SPD) in a major regional election.
Polls indicate Hannelore Kraft, 50, a tram-worker's daughter with a ready smile and common touch, will win the closely-watched May 13 vote in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) and be re-elected premier of Germany's most populous state.
Such a result would give the SPD, who are trailing the conservatives by up to 10 points nationally, a morale boost and cement Kraft's reputation in some eyes as a potential future chancellor.
"In the long term she is a leading light in the SPD, even if she wants to avoid such talk in the state campaign," said Ulrich von Alemann, politics professor at Duesseldorf University.
For the last two years, the diminutive blonde with a self-confessed penchant for puzzles and quiz games, has ruled the state in a minority government with the Greens.
Most commentators dismiss media speculation that the relatively inexperienced Kraft could challenge Merkel in next year's federal vote, although the SPD, Germany's main opposition party, is widely seen as lacking an obvious candidate.
"If she delivers a convincing victory, the media will immediately say Kraft is the only one who has proven she can win elections," said a political consultant close to the SPD.
Kraft's time could come after another stint atop NRW.
"After serving a full and successful term as premier of such a big state, Kraft could be in a good position to compete against the experience of Merkel," said von Alemann.
Her no-nonsense style and political pragmatism - seen in her cobbling together of a minority government tolerated by opposition parties - are traits often attributed to Merkel.
"You can draw parallels," said Volker Kronenberg, politics professor at Bonn University. "The two share an openness and pragmatic readiness to compromise which helps them in office."
But Kraft has one asset Merkel lacks - a human touch.
Using her roots in NRW's industrial Ruhr heartland to her advantage, she has developed her image as "Landesmutter", or "mother of the state" which, pollsters say, scores with voters.
A Forsa poll on Wednesday showed 56 percent of NRW voters preferred Kraft to her conservative Christian Democrat (CDU) rival Norbert Roettgen, who won just 25 percent. Most polls put her SPD about eight points ahead of the CDU although the make-up of the future government is unclear due to coalition arithmetic.
On the campaign trail, she mingles with shoppers and chats about day-to-day concerns, at times drawing on her own family's experience, such as a time when her husband was unemployed.
One tongue-in-cheek campaign poster "Currywurst ist SPD", roughly translated as "Curry sausage - that's the SPD" in reference to the working class delicacy, rams home Kraft's election message - that she is close to ordinary people.
This style contrasts with Merkel, dubbed "Mutti", or "mummy" by German media because of her undisputed grip on power but who often looks stiff when meeting voters face to face.
Locals remember Kraft's moving response to the tragic 2010 Love Parade disaster in which 21 people were crushed to death at a music festival in the NRW city of Duisburg.
Fighting back tears, she outshone Merkel at a commemoration ceremony, talking of families' helplessness and anger. Her own son survived the stampede.
Kraft is also the antithesis of her opponent, German Environment Minister Roettgen who wears small round spectacles and looks more at home in Berlin's corridors of power than on the campaign trail through former mining towns.
He is widely seen as having bungled his election hopes by refusing to commit to staying in NRW even if he loses the vote.
But it is not just her rival's weakness that is boosting Kraft, one of the SPD's most popular national deputy leaders.
Commentators say she has shown political guts.
The gamble she took in 2010 has paid off. Despite delivering the worst SPD result in NRW for 50 years and winning the same number of seats as the CDU, she brushed off skepticism about the prospects for a minority government and ousted the CDU premier.
Since then, she has won opposition support to push through school reform, abolish tuition fees and raise childcare funding.
A qualified economist and business consultant, Kraft's political priorities - a minimum wage, education reform and boosting NRW's business appeal - are linked to the economy.
Yet her biggest vulnerability is fiscal management and that could yet dent any hopes of higher office.
The CDU has homed in on NRW's record debt pile of 180 billion euros and calls Kraft the "debt queen". It is unclear if she will deliver on the state's obligations to cut debt under Germany's new "debt brake" law which is attracting plenty of attention as the euro zone debt crisis continues to bubble.
Her failure to get her 2012 budget plans passed after a court ruled them unconstitutional forced her to call an early election and left her exposed to charges of fiscal incompetence.
In a sign that Merkel may be taking her seriously as a future rival, the chancellor made an unusually direct personal attack on her at a campaign rally last month, attacking what she described as shortcomings in education and budget management.
But for now, at least, Merkel need not worry that Kraft will go head to head with her in next year's federal election.
"My heart and my job are in NRW," insisted Kraft this week.
(Additional reporting by Noah Barkin; Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Toby Chopra)