German conservative Armin Laschet hoped for a local election boost on Sunday in his quest to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel as a fresh poll showed him trailing other candidates ahead of a December party leadership show-down.
Laschet, 59, who is positioning himself as the continuity candidate to succeed Merkel, needs a strong performance by his Christian Democrats (CDU) in Sunday's North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) local elections after he endured a difficult summer.
Polls showed voters have rated his management of the coronavirus pandemic in Germany's most populous state poorly.
"In the CDU, we hope to be the strongest political force in North Rhine-Westphalia again, and to increase our margin over competitors," Laschet, a centrist, said after voting.
More than 14 million people are entitled to vote in Sunday's elections, in which NRW voters are choosing local town councils. The strength of different parties varies from city to city, but polls show the CDU is in the lead overall.
The elections come as the CDU looks ahead to a congress in December when it must choose a new leader. The new CDU chairman will be in pole position to be the party's chancellor candidate, though in theory the leader of its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), could run as the candidate for their alliance, dubbed "the Union".
Merkel, in power since 2005, has said she will not seek re-election in federal elections due by October next year.
A poll published on Sunday suggested Laschet has his work cut out. Most Germans - 31% - favour CSU chairman Markus Soeder as the Union candidate for chancellor, the Sept. 9-10 survey of 1,013 voters by pollster Kantar for Bild am Sonntag showed.
Health Minister Jens Spahn came second, on 14%, followed by erstwhile Merkel rival Friedrich Merz, on 13%, and then Laschet on 8%. Among Union supporters, support for Soeder hit 46%.
Soeder, who has so far played down any interest in running for chancellor, told Saturday's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "My place is in Bavaria."
No chancellor has ever come from the CSU.