The premier of Opel's home state of Hesse said on Friday that Magna had made the most attractive offer for the German carmaker, but the government in Berlin denied it had settled on a preferred suitor.

Canadian-Austrian car parts group Magna, Italian carmaker Fiat and industrial holding company RHJ International have submitted offers for Opel, the German unit of struggling U.S. carmaker General Motors.

Top German government officials, including Chancellor Angela Merkel and leaders from the four states where Opel has plants, are due to meet later on Friday in Berlin to discuss the bids and a preliminary decision could come within days.

Ahead of that meeting, Hesse premier Roland Koch told German radio that the Magna offer was closest to the hopes and wishes of German politicians and Opel workers.

He said the RHJ bid as very interesting but described Fiat's offer, which senior Opel union leaders have said they oppose, as disappointing. Fiat had no comment.

The Magna concept focuses heavily on new ideas, new markets and new clients, while the others focus more on rationalization, Koch said.

Not all jobs can be preserved in a new European Opel group, but there are concepts that offer a more interesting outlook for the German sites than others do. Magna is one that offers a more interesting outlook.

German government spokesman Thomas Steg denied, however, that Berlin had settled on a preferred bidder for Opel, which employs roughly 25,000 staff across Germany.

He said the government's criteria included a sustainable company concept, the preservation of jobs and German sites, and a responsible handling of taxpayer money.

CLOCK TICKING

Both General Motors and the German government are in a race against time to finalize a sale of Opel, which is headquartered in Ruesselsheim, near Frankfurt.

The U.S. government has given GM until June 1 to restructure its operations and prove it can be viable without state aid, or face probable bankruptcy.

The decision on who gets Opel will be taken by GM but the German government will also play a big role because it would likely have to supply billions of euros in financing guarantees to the eventual winner.

The bidding process for Opel has also been colored by a politically-charged debate in Berlin ahead of a federal election in September.

Merkel's conservatives are keen to preserve Opel jobs but want to keep the state's role in any rescue limited.

The rival Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel's partners in an uneasy right-left coalition, say the government should do all it can to save Opel and have sought to portray her as insensitive to the fate of its workers.

Fiat Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne has led a formidable public relations campaign in recent weeks, racing around in a Maserati and his trademark sweater to meetings with top government officials.

He was quoted in an Italian newspaper on Thursday as saying Fiat's chances of getting Opel were better than 50 percent.

Marchionne wants to create the world's second biggest carmaker, after Japan's Toyota, by adding the assets of Opel and Vauxhall to a stable that includes Fiat's brands and those of U.S. carmaker Chrysler.

MAGNA EYES RUSSIAN MARKET

But German media reports have said the Fiat plan would involve more job cuts than the other offers. Source told Reuters on Friday that both the Magna and RHJ plans foresaw roughly 10,000 job cuts, mostly outside Germany.

Fiat is believed to be seeking some 7 billion euros in government support for its scheme, some 2 billion more than Magna and RHJ say they require.

Magna co-Chief Executive Siegfried Wolf told reporters in Berlin that under his company's plan, GM and Russian partners - carmaker GAZ and Sberbank - would each hold a 35 percent stake in Opel, with Magna taking 20 and employees 10 percent.

However GAZ said on Friday it was not looking to acquire a stake as part of the Magna bid.

Wolf said Magna intended to retain all four German plants and said job cuts would center on Opel sites in Belgium and Britain. The Magna consortium would invest 500-700 million euros in Opel, Wolf said.

People familiar with Magna's plans have told Reuters the partnership with GAZ would offer Opel a stronger foothold in Russia, seen as a key growth market once global economies recover.

(Additional reporting by Philipp Halstrick in Frankfurt, Christiaan Hetzner in Berlin, Dmitry Sergeyev in Moscow, Gilles Castonguay in Milan; Editing by David Cowell)

(Writing by Noah Barkin)