* Hannelore Kraft turns SPD fortunes around in key state
* Common touch makes her serious rival to Merkel
* State debts may hold her back
By Stephen Brown and Madeline Chambers
BERLIN, May 14 Her rivals call her Germany's
"debt queen", but Hannelore Kraft's victory in a state election
at the weekend has driven speculation she could challenge
Chancellor Angela Merkel as the mother of a nation famed for its
Kraft's ready smile and common touch helped her turn around
the fortunes of her Social Democrats (SPD) in the May 13 vote in
North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) and she was re-elected premier of
Germany's most populous state.
An economist and business consultant whose father was a
tram-worker, Kraft has nowhere near the political experience of
Merkel, who has been in power since 2005, even though, at 50,
she is only seven years her junior.
But she has earned a reputation for political pragmatism,
just like the conservative chancellor who will fight for a third
term in 16 months' time, and has an earthy charm Merkel lacks.
Kraft gave her victory speech in a disco, not somewhere
Merkel would choose, breaking into song and thanking her mother
for doing the ironing during the campaign. "To be honest, I am
totally kaputt," she told supporters.
On the campaign trail, she mingled with shoppers and chatted
about day-to-day concerns, drawing on her own family's
experience such as the 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.
For two years before Sunday's vote, the personable blonde
with a penchant for puzzles and quiz games led a minority state
government with the Greens, winning opposition support for
school reform, an end to tuition fees and more childcare funds.
Now she doesn't have to.
Playing on her roots in NRW's industrial Ruhr heartland, she
developed her image as "Landesmutter", or "mother of the state"
which pollsters say went down well with voters.
The SPD won 39.1 percent against 26.3 percent for the CDU.
"Naturally such a convincing result means she could be a
candidate for chancellor," said SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel, who
wants to be the SPD's candidate himself and quickly added: "She
herself has ruled out that possibility."
Even Merkel paid tribute to Kraft's campaign, telling a news
conference on Monday alongside her sorry candidate, Norbert
Roettgen: "The SPD's victory was clearly down to their leading
candidate so I congratulate them on this success."
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", although the
debts were built up over many years.
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 a supplementary budget for 2010 unconstitutional
forced her to call an early election and left her exposed to
charges of fiscal incompetence.
Opinion polls show a majority of Germans back Merkel's focus
on debt reduction abroad and don't want her to soften her stance
towards struggling euro partners, but the result in NRW shows
there is also much support for Kraft's gentle approach to
austerity at home and emphasis on the need for investment.
Kraft, whose name means power or vigour, overshadowed
Roettgen, Germany's Environment Minister, 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
and created a huge headache for Merkel by saying the election
was a referendum on her policies.
Kraft is one of the SPD's most popular national deputy
leaders, but some people note the campaign was largely fought on
state-specific party politics and say she might not be ready for
"Kraft is not necessarily a candidate for chancellor," said
Klaus Schroeder, a political scientist at Berlin's Free
The conservative daily Die Welt cautioned against the view
that Kraft could become chancellor in 2013.
"The SPD now thinks it can march back to power with the
Greens in 2013. Such optimism is unfounded. Kraft remained below
40 percent and the SPD-Green victory was based on Roettgen's
weakenss. Angela Merkel is an opponent of a different calibre."
Sunday's vote gave the SPD, who are trailing the
conservatives by up to 10 points nationally, a morale boost and
Kraft is now firmly seen 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.
Kraft's time could come after another stint as NRW premier,
"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."