BERLIN German media and traditional allies of Angela Merkel threw their weight behind an opposition candidate for president at the weekend, raising the risks of an embarrassment for the chancellor in a vote later this month.
Following the shock resignation of Horst Koehler last week after criticism of his comments about military action abroad, Merkel tapped Christian Wulff, a smooth-talking party ally from the western state of Lower Saxony, to take over the largely ceremonial post of president.
But some are now questioning whether Wulff, a 50-year old career politician, is suited for a role that is supposed to be above politics and which past holders have built into a sort of moral authority for the nation.
Instead, momentum is building for the rival candidacy of Joachim Gauck, a former Protestant pastor and anti-communist human rights activist in East Germany, who is 20 years older than Wulff and has no links to the country's political parties.
Influential weekly Der Spiegel put a picture of Gauck on its front cover Sunday with the headline "The better president."
Germany's top-selling daily Bild also had Gauck on its front page, next to the headline "Yes we Gauck," a twist on U.S. President Barack Obama's campaign slogan "Yes we can."
The main opposition parties, the Social Democrats and Greens, chose Gauck as their candidate for the post in what German media are now describing as a political coup that could end up hurting Merkel.
The president will be chosen on June 30 by Germany's federal assembly, a special body made up of members of parliament and delegates from the country's 16 federal states.
SMALL CHANCE OF GAUCK VICTORY
The parties in Merkel's center-right coalition have a solid majority in the 1,244-seat assembly, making Wulff's election all but assured.
But analysts said there was a small risk that Gauck could emerge victorious if enough of Merkel's allies broke ranks and members of the "Linke" party could be persuaded to back Wulff's opponent -- no small task given that the far-left grouping includes former communists Gauck opposed in the former GDR.
"Gauck's chances are very very slim, but we've had a lot of surprises in recent weeks, including the resignation of Koehler, so one can't completely rule him out," said Peter Loesche, professor emeritus at Goettingen University.
Failure to get her hand-picked candidate into the Bellevue presidential palace would be a major blow to Merkel, whose popularity at home has hit new lows amid infighting in her coalition and whose international image has taken a beating over Berlin's delays in approving aid for Greece.
Members of the Free Democrats (FDP), who have clashed repeatedly with Merkel since forming a coalition with her last October, signaled at the weekend that they were ready to defect and back Gauck.
Holger Zastrow, leader of the FDP in the state of Saxony, told Die Welt newspaper that there would be no "blank check" for Wulff and said he had a great deal of respect for Gauck.
Veit Wolpert, a senior FDP politician in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, told the same newspaper that there was "massive anger" that regional party leaders had not been consulted about Wulff's nomination.
Gauck has a rich life story shaped by the Cold War. At the age of 11, his father was arrested by communist authorities and sent to the Gulag in Siberia. After the Berlin Wall fell, Gauck ran the state-run archives on the Stasi, earning recognition for exposing the crimes of the dreaded East German secret police.
(Writing by Noah Barkin; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)