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Monday, 3 December, 2001, 23:32 GMT
Opposition leader inspires party
Angela Merkel
A newly confident Ms Merkel won delegates hearts
The leader of the German opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) has launched a determined bid to secure her future in a crowd-pleasing opening speech to the party conference.

The CDU is not only still here but the CDU is once again fully here and this CDU is ready to fight

Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel received a six-and-a-half minute standing ovation for her speech, in which she called for the party to unite and fight together.

The question of who should stand for chancellor at next year's elections is dominating delegates' minds, even though it has been scrubbed from the official agenda and Ms Merkel's speech was seen as decisive for her chances.

The warm reaction to her gutsy performance indicated a higher level of grassroots support for Ms Merkel than many observers had expected but her place as candidate for the chancellorship is still not assured.

She faces challenges from former party leader Wolfgang Schaeuble and Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber who will address the congress on Tuesday.

Fighting talk

"The CDU is not only still here but the CDU is once again fully here and this CDU is ready to fight," she said.

The party elite had urged delegates to use the two-day conference to focus on policy and leave the candidacy question until the new year.

Edmund Stoiber
Edmund Stoiber: Most popular of front runners
But the plea went unheeded by many of the 1,000 delegates meeting in the eastern city of Dresden.

"It was the speech of a great German politician," said the influential CDU premier of Saxony, Kurt Biedenkopf who said Ms Merkel had greater control of the party than he had expected.

But while Ms Merkel appears to have stamped some authority on the party with her speech, it may not, say some delegates, be enough to run for chancellor under the CDU banner.

"Angela Merkel was impressively supported today. But as party leader not as chancellor candidate. She should not confuse the two as she could ultimately risk losing both of them," said delegate Heinz Eggert.

An important indication of support for Ms Merkel's team came when delegates voted overwhelmingly to re-elect one of her closest aides, party secretary-general Laurenz Meyer.

Behind in polls

But despite Monday's triumph, polls regularly show that Ms Merkel lies behind her competitors in voters' affections.

Ms Merkel was brought in last spring as a fresh face for the scandal-ridden party.

Her predecessor, Mr Schaeuble, was ousted when he became embroiled in the same slush fund debacle which brought down Helmut Kohl.

Wolfgang Schaeuble
Wolfgang Schaeuble: Rehabilitated since prosecutors dropped charges
But she has failed to unite the party and Mr Schaeuble is once again a frontrunner for the CDU crown following a decision by prosecutors to drop an perjury investigation arising from comments he made about a party donation.

Criticism of her leadership from within the party has become increasingly overt, forcing her last month to warn that the bickering was putting the party in danger of destroying itself from within.

But Ms Merkel on Monday may have succeeded in drawing some attention away from personality and on to policy, outlining the platform on which the party will fight next year's election.

She indicated she was not ready to accept the government's immigration policy as it stood and was ready to make the subject an election issue - something from which she had previously shied away.

Nonetheless, pundits will have their stopwatches out on Tuesday when her rival, Edmund Stoiber, addresses the conference, to time the standing ovation that he receives.

See also:

20 Mar 00 | Europe
The rise of Angela Merkel
05 Nov 01 | Europe
CDU leader warns party faces ruin
16 Feb 00 | Europe
Profile: Wolfgang Schaeuble
01 Nov 01 | Europe
Ex-CDU head off the hook
18 Jan 00 | Europe
Kohl's mark on history
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