Germany's Steinmeier gets career boost with new job

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BERLIN, Nov 13 (Reuters) Frank-Walter Steinmeier's appointment today as vice chancellor marks the latest step in a meteoric rise from a relative unknown two years ago to one of Germany's most influential and popular politicians.

Languishing for years in the shadow of former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the bespectacled, silver-haired Social Democrat has worked to establish a reputation of his own since he became foreign minister in 2005 and raised his party profile.

Steinmeier is to take over as the government's number two next week after Franz Muentefering said he was resigning for family reasons. He could even run as the Social Democrat's candidate against conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2009.

Steinmeier, 51, regularly appears as one of the country's most popular politicians in opinion polls -- although it is unclear if he helped his cause by recording a ''rhythm and blues'' duet with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner yesterday.

Widely viewed as a matter-of-fact operator who can mediate in tough conflicts, cigarette-smoking Steinmeier was Schroeder's chief of staff between 1999 and 2005 and shunned the limelight.

But that has changed since he became Germany's top diplomat.

''Steinmeier has developed a very strong profile for himself as foreign minister, as often happens with people in that job, but this move strengthens him more, especially in government,'' said political scientist Dietmar Herz from Erfurt University.

The vice chancellor role will enable Steinmeier to get more involved in domestic politics and he will have a responsibility to help Merkel thrash out policy compromises between both parties in the fractious left-right coalition.

Steinmeier has in the last few months stepped up his criticism of Merkel -- for example criticising her policy towards Turkey over EU membership talks -- which has boosted his standing among Social Democrats (SPD). He regularly fares better in opinion polls than SPD leader Kurt Beck.

As things stand, Beck looks set to win the SPD nomination to run against Merkel in the 2009 election, but in the last few months Steinmeier has emerged as the main alternative if he stumbles, analysts say.

''If anything happens to Beck, Steinmeier is clearly the person to take on the chancellorship candidacy,'' Herz said.

He was elected as one of three Social Democrat deputy chairmen last month and won more votes than the other two deputies, Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck and prominent lawmaker Andrea Nahles.

Since becoming foreign minister, Steinmeier and Merkel have largely steered around their differences despite recent digs, especially during Germany's presidencies of the European Union and Group of Eight industrialised nations.

A shrewd politician, Steinmeier has weathered a storm over accusations earlier this year he helped delay the release of a German-born Turk from the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.

REUTERS SBC BD2246

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