Support mounts for opposition presidential pick, ex-East German revolutionary

BERLIN (AP) — Despite sharing the chancellor's East German past and devotion to democracy, the opposition pick to be Germany's next head of state, Joachim Gauck, is turning out to be Chancellor Angela Merkel's latest threat.

Although the 70-year-old former priest from the gritty port city of Rostock is the underdog in the race for Germany's presidential office, it was his deeply lined face, not that of the chancellor's candidate featured in the nation's most influential news weeklies on Sunday.

"Yes We Gauck," screamed the title of the mass-circulation Bild am Sonntag — a play on President Barack Obama's "Yes We Can" campaign slogan, while the weekly Der Spiegel also splashed the opposition candidate on its cover as "The Better President."

By contrast, Merkel's candidate, 50-year old Christian Wulff, a leading member of her conservative Christian Democratic Union and current governor of the state of Lower Saxony has earned the moniker "the ideal son-in-law," for his clean-cut looks and ability to always find the right word.

Germany lurched into an unexpected campaign for the nation's highest office after President Horst Koehler resigned Monday in a surprise move following weeks of media battering over remarks linking military campaigns abroad to economic interests.

Though the president has little real power, the attention showered on the Social Democrat could augur ill for Merkel, who has stumbled from one setback to the next. Koehler's resignation came on the heels of a rocky start for her second term in office, an embarrassing state election loss in May, the euro debt crisis and a prominent conservative state governor's impromptu resignation.

A special parliamentary assembly meets June 30 to elect a new head of state from the candidates nominated by the political parties. Merkel's coalition with the Free Democrats holds a majority among its 1,244 members, and Wulff is considered a shoo-in. But several coalition members expressed sympathy for Gauck.

"I ask myself why it was not possible for the (coalition) to agree with the Social Democrats on Gauck," Joerg Schoenbohm, a Christian Democrat who sits on the voting committee, told Spiegel in its Monday edition.

Traditionally, the largely representational office is held by someone considered to be outside of party politics and who can serve as the moral voice of the nation, and to many Wulff is too closely linked to Merkel's Christian Democrats.

"Mr. Gauck is a wonderful idea," Hildegard Hamm-Bruecher, an influential former presidential candidate for the Free Democrats, wrote in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper. "He has been proven and tested under political fire, but does not come from the party pack."

Born in 1953, Gauck refused to join the former East German youth organization, he went on to study theology and became a Lutheran pastor. He became a prominent member of the democracy movement against the communists and was elected in 1990 to the last East German parliament.

After reunification, Gauck administered the Stasi's files for a decade until 2000 — helping East Germans confront the state's relentless surveillance of their lives.

Even Merkel praised him in a speech at his 70th birthday party in January as an exceptional speaker "who has served our nation in an exceptional and distinguished way — as a civil rights activist ... a freedom-thinker, a supporter of unity and forgiveness."

Yet friendship aside, Merkel can ill afford another setback.