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KARLSRUHE, Germany (Reuters) - With a rousing speech in defense of her refugee policies, Angela Merkel fended off a challenge from conservative critics this week, reasserting control over her party and bolstering her case for a fourth term as German chancellor in 2017.
But the meeting of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the southern city of Karlsruhe may also be remembered as the coming out party for Julia Kloeckner, a 43-year-old former German "wine queen", who has quietly positioned herself as a leading candidate to replace Merkel, when she finally does go.
Kloeckner, leader of the CDU in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, is an exception in the world of German politics, where seriousness and sobriety are often valued more than charisma and flash.
Unlike Merkel, she is supremely comfortable in front of the cameras. Once a Weinkoenigin (wine queen), a sort of ambassador for the Rhineland, Kloeckner grew up on a farm in western Germany driving a tractor and taking care of horses, cows and pigs. She connects well with the rank-and-file in her traditional, conservative party.
Like the chancellor, Kloeckner was underestimated when she entered politics back in 2002, after being encouraged to run for a seat in the federal parliament in Berlin by CDU friends determined to get more women elected to the Bundestag.
Few dismiss her now. With Merkel under pressure to toughen her stance on refugees in the weeks leading up to the CDU congress in Karlsruhe, Kloeckner showed her political acumen by positioning herself firmly to the right of the chancellor but without ever appearing disloyal.
This earned her speaking stints at the podium on both days of the congress, where she received ovations from the 1,000 delegates with her calls for a ban on the burqa, the full-body garment used by some Muslim women, and for a law that would incentivize migrants to integrate.
"She is a natural political talent who knows how to promote herself," said Juergen Falter, a political scientist who taught Kloeckner when she studied politics and theology at Mainz University.
"Merkel will not be chancellor forever. She will do one more term at the most. And once she's finished, the chancellery would not be a step too far for Kloeckner."
To maintain her momentum however, Kloeckner must win a high-stakes election in March in the Rhineland, where the rival Social Democrats (SPD) have ruled for a quarter century.
Breaking their hold on power could prove difficult, in part because Kloeckner will be facing off against popular SPD premier Malu Dreyer, the first time ever that two women will go head to head for the big German parties in a state vote.
Kloeckner’s chances may hinge on the performance of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a relatively new anti-immigrant party that has criticized Merkel’s welcoming stance toward refugees.
If the AfD make it into the state parliament, they could deny Dreyer the leftist majority she needs to retain power, handing the reins to Kloeckner.
"Her first priority is to win the election in Rhineland-Palatinate and if she does win, she will need to focus on that job," said Christian Baldauf, who was CDU leader in the state before tapping Kloeckner to replace him in 2010.
Should she lose however, her national hopes would be dealt a serious blow.
A few years ago, David McAllister was another rising CDU star who the media pegged as a candidate to replace Merkel one day. Then he lost an agonizingly close vote in his home state of Lower Saxony and left German politics for a seat in the European Parliament.
Some of Kloeckner's critics say Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg might be the better comparison. A charismatic self-promoter, Guttenberg, a former defense and economy minister, was dubbed a future chancellor by an adoring German media before a plagiarism scandal abruptly ended his political career.
Asked to name Kloeckner's weaknesses, Baldauf hesitates before saying: "Sometimes she's a bit too eager to see her name in the headlines".
Working in Kloeckner's favor is her relative youth. Unlike other potential Merkel successors who are close to the chancellor's age, like Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, Kloeckner can afford to bide her time should Merkel run and win again in 2017.
She belongs to a new generation of CDU politicians that combine traditional conservative values with a modern flair.
Kloeckner is a practicing Catholic but is openly critical of the church for its positions on women and homosexuals. She has no children and is not married to her partner of 15 years, a media consultant who is more than 20 years older than her.
In the refugee crisis, she has carved out a niche for herself as an advocate of closely managed integration. She has framed her call for a burqa ban as an issue of women's rights as well as one of German values, winning fans on the left and right.
Her deft political touch has led fans to overlook her thin resume. Before entering politics full time, Kloeckner worked as an editor of a wine magazine. To pad her experience, the CDU gave her a state secretary post in the agriculture ministry. Now she is one of five deputy leaders of the party, elected to the post with scores that dwarf those of her colleagues.
Kloeckner’s main asset is her simple, girl-next-door image which she goes to great lengths to cultivate. In a new book in which she sets out her political philosophy, she talks about her humble beginnings on the farm. Asked what gives her strength, she mentions the smell of hay and horses.
What can’t she do without, she is asked in the book. Pinot gris wine and Gummibaerchen, ideally in combination, is the answer.
The first time she flew on an airplane, she says, was when she was 21. But she made up for lost time after being anointed wine queen in 1995, traveling to Italy, China, Oman and the United States. Among other dignitaries, she met Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela and Michael Gorbachev.
According to a recent profile in German magazine Cicero, on a wine trip to London, Kloeckner exited the plane, threw open her arms and declared triumphantly “I am the queen!”. She denies it but those who know her well, the magazine says, don’t doubt it’s true.
editing by Janet McBride