* Wulff gets boost from new public opinion poll
* Merkel has “high esteem” for president
* Bild holds back transcript of “war” voice mail (Adds government comment, VW lawsuit)
By Noah Barkin and Annika Breidthardt
BERLIN, Jan 6 (Reuters) - Most Germans want President Christian Wulff to stay in office even if many were not convinced by his attempts this week to defuse the uproar over his efforts to quash an embarrassing newspaper story, a poll showed on Friday.
The survey for public broadcaster ARD showed that 56 percent of respondents believed Wulff should not resign over the scandal that risks damaging Chancellor Angela Merkel, who backed him for the presidency in 2010.
It was conducted on Thursday, a day after Wulff gave a television interview in which he acknowledged making a “grave mistake” by leaving a voicemail message for the editor of top-selling German newspaper Bild last month in a bid to stop publication of the story about his private home loan.
German media have reported Wulff threatened “war” and legal action if Bild went ahead with the story.
Some 61 percent of respondents said they were not convinced by Wulff’s efforts to stem the scandal, but the fact that a majority still support him means he is unlikely to go unless harmful new revelations emerge.
No one can force Wulff out unless it can be shown that he broke the law and Merkel, who is keen to avoid a divisive political debate over a successor, has expressed support for him through a spokesman.
“ The chancellor holds Christian Wulff in high esteem as a person and as a president and she has high respect for the office he holds,” Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said on Friday.
Even the biggest opposition parties, the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, have stopped short of calling for his ouster, although they have been highly critical of his conduct and of Merkel for having pushed him for the largely ceremonial post.
“I would like a clear word from the chancellor on whether Wulff still fulfils the expectations she has for the office of the president. After all, he was her candidate,” Hubertus Heil, deputy leader of the SPD in parliament, said on television.
Germans take the office of president seriously. The person in the post is expected to act as a moral authority for the nation, defending the constitution, including its commitment to press freedom.
Wulff, a former conservative premier of the state of Lower Saxony, is not totally out of the woods yet.
In another possible setback, news emerged on Friday that investors had raised their compensation claims against carmakers Porsche and Volkswagen for allegedly holding back crucial information from shareholders when Wulff sat on the VW board.
Bild also disputes Wulff’s contention that he only sought to delay publication of the home loan story by a day, not kill it, and has threatened to release a transcript of the voicemail message the president left on editor Kai Diekmann’s phone last month.
Wulff refused to approve the release of the transcript on Thursday, saying the voicemail was a private matter between him and Diekmann. A day before, in the television interview, he had promised full transparency in the affair.
Despite the pressure from Wulff, Bild went ahead and published the story in question in mid-December. In it, the paper reported that Wulff had received a home loan in 2008 at cheap rates from the wife of a wealthy businessman friend Egon Geerkens when he was a state leader.
He is accused of misleading the state parliament when he denied having any business links to Geerkens and his critics say he may have also broken ministerial law.
The ARD survey showed that Germans were roughly evenly divided on what Wulff’s eventual fate would be, with 49 percent saying he would be out of office by the end of the year and 45 percent forecasting he would hold onto his post. (Reporting by Annika Breidthardt; Editing by Noah Barkin)