By Rob Broomby in Berlin
Angela Merkel first came into prominence during the darkest days of the party-slush scandal.
She strongly denied allegations that bribes were paid for the supply of tanks to Saudi Arabia, describing them as "totally absurd".
But, as the crisis deepened and the full scale of former chancellor Helmut Kohl's role in it became apparent, she was the first to turn on the man who had plucked her from obscurity and brought her into the cabinet.
The gamble paid off. For Vera Lengsfeld, an East German Green who switched to the CDU, the choice of Merkel to lead the party represents a mini revolution:
"Its a breakthrough for women" she said. "She is very competent person - she has leadership qualities and we expect her to be a good leader."
Angela Merkel's success has been meteoric.
Only months ago it seemed unthinkable that the CDU - a traditional party with its roots in Catholicism - could chose an East German, female, Protestant as leader.
Now members of the party elite, like the former General Secretary Peter Hintze, are queuing up to show allegiance:
"She is a really intelligent and bright woman" he says.
"That she comes from the East is a sign that the reunified Germany is coming back together".
Her rapid rise on the back of the scandal has been noted by the satirists.
But jibes about her casual appearance have failed to dent her new-found popularity with the party.
CDU people-power effectively turned a series of mood-testing conferences into US-style primary elections...and she swept the board.
But commentators and politicians alike are at a loss to define what she stands for.
Ulrich Klinkert, her deputy when she headed the Environment Ministry in the mid-1990s, says she is a highly competent professional, but says comparisons to Britain's Margaret Thatcher are wide of the mark:
"Its too easy to say she is Germany's Margaret Thatcher - she is a little bit Margaret Thatcher and a little bit Tony Blair."
She remains something of an enigma - a circus ringmaster capable of holding various party acts together, but not as yet the star of the show in her own right.
Karl Feldmeier, senior correspondent with the Frankfurter Allgemainer Zeitung newspaper, says party members have rallied to her cause - not because of what she stands for, but because she is "convincing" as a person.
"She doesn't have a group of close allies in the party, as has been typical in the decades before," he explains. "She is supported by the sympathy of a growing part of the membership of the party - and that's all."
Some members of the CDU see Angela Merkel as something of a role model.
Katerina Reiche, the youngest CDU MP in the Bundestag, says Mrs Merkel stands for family values, but not as the party has known it before.
"In former times, being married was important - now we talk of families being important, but not necessarily the marriage as an institution. Even in a gay relationship people take care of each other - that's a switch for a conservative party"
The party right-wing is troubled by such liberalism but has failed to block her progress.
Becoming leader does not necessarily mean Angela Merkel will become the CDU candidate for chancellor in 2002, but a female head of government is at least a real possibility.