Germany's opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has named Angela Merkel to challenge Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in elections this year.
Angela Merkel: Not in the traditional CDU mould
The nomination means Mrs Merkel might become Germany's first woman leader.
Mr Schroeder plans to hold a confidence vote in parliament by 1 July - the first step in forcing early elections.
It follows the conservative CDU's 22 May victory over the ruling Social Democrats (SPD) in the key industrial state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
If Mr Schroeder's government loses the confidence vote, parliament will be dissolved and elections will be held by mid-September.
Party officials said Mrs Merkel's only rival, Edmund Stoiber, had given her his backing. He leads the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union.
Mr Stoiber lost to Mr Schroeder in the 2002 general election.
Mrs Merkel, 50, was born in Hamburg but she grew up in former communist East Germany.
She joined the CDU two months before the reunification of Germany and within three months she was in Helmut Kohl's cabinet as minister for women and youth.
She was chosen to lead the party in April 2000 after a CDU party slush fund scandal.
The BBC's Ray Furlong, in Berlin, says Mrs Merkel is still a somewhat isolated figure within her party. She is a Protestant woman regarded as East German in a party dominated by West German, Catholic men.
Our correspondent says her chances of becoming chancellor look good, with the CDU ahead in recent opinion polls. And, he adds, just as Mrs Merkel has fought her way past rivals within the party, she has also been working hard to transform her own once drab and awkward image with the public.