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Wild card Roettgen enters race to take over Merkel's party

BERLIN (Reuters) - Senior German conservative lawmaker Norbert Roettgen said on Tuesday he would join the race to take over as leader of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), a surprise candidacy that deepens the struggle for the party’s future.

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Merkel’s protegee, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, threw the party into turmoil last week by saying she would not stand as chancellor in the next federal election, due by Oct. 2021, and would give up the CDU party chair.

Her announcement left Chancellor Merkel’s plans for a smooth transition in tatters. After nearly 15 years at the helm of Europe’s biggest economy, she has said she will not seek re-election and if a rival takes control of the party, she may have to stand down early.

Roettgen is the fourth likely contender for the CDU top job. Kramp-Karrenbauer is this week sounding out prospective candidates, starting on Tuesday with Friedrich Merz, a former arch-rival of Merkel on the right of the party.

Roettgen said the CDU had to make decisions about its future course.

“This is about the future of the CDU and the Christian-Democratic idea for our country’s future,” he told reporters.

He sketched a vision of a centrist party that tolerated neither the far right nor far left, but would listen to disillusioned voters who have turned to the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Warning that the migration issue was not over as the conflict in Syria creates more refugees, Roettgen also emphasized the need for bolder policies to fight climate change.

He has in the past been widely seen as someone who could work with the Greens, the second-biggest party in polls after the conservative bloc.

As head of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, Roettgen has carved out something of an international profile, speaking out on issues from Brexit to China’s Huawei.

However, he is not widely seen as a big hitter in the party and few political analysts rate his chances.

Merkel sacked him as environment minister in 2012 after he lost an election in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state.

The CDU has not yet decided when or how to choose a party leader. Roettgen said he wanted that question to be decided before the summer break and favored Merkel serving a full term.

The CDU leader is likely to run as chancellor for the conservative bloc but the Christian Social Union (CSU) - the CDU’s Bavarian sister party - also has a say and may want to put forward its leader Markus Soeder as the candidate.

Roettgen said the question of who should run as chancellor could be decided later, around the end of the year.

Other CDU leadership contenders are right-wing Health Minister Jens Spahn, and Armin Laschet, premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, a centrist widely seen as a continuity candidate although he sharply criticized Merkel’s Europe policy on Sunday.

Writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Michelle Martin and Helen Popper