The former East German activist whose candidacy Chancellor Angela Merkel opposed two years ago is the favourite of a majority of Germans to become president, a poll showed Sunday as her coalition government met to discuss filling the post.
Christian Wulff, Merkel's hand-picked choice in 2010, resigned Friday in a scandal over financial favours, forcing her to search for a replacement for the ceremonial but influential role.
The poll for mass-selling weekly Bild am Sonntag showed rights campaigner Joachim Gauck was favoured by 54 percent of Germans, even though he has not put himself forward for the job.
The 72-year-old was an active opposition figure under East Germany's communist regime and oversaw the Stasi archives after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He is not affiliated to any major political party.
Merkel rejected his candidacy for the post two years ago, pushing Wulff into the job instead, despite doubts about the regional politician's suitability for the position which is supposed to serve as a moral compass for the nation.
Although she has vowed to seek a consensus candidate with the opposition, the search could prove divisive and distract her government from efforts to control the euro zone sovereign debt crisis.
The chancellor, who postponed a trip to Rome for euro zone crisis talks to deal with the fallout of Wulff's resignation, met with top coalition members Sunday to discuss candidates.
A coalition source said it was unlikely to be in a position to meet the opposition Sunday to agree on a candidate.
While most political parties remained tight-lipped about their favourite for post, the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) came out in support of Gauck Saturday, but said it was open to other proposals.
The SPD and the Greens said they would oppose any member of Merkel's government taking up the post, ruling out Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and Labour Minister Ursula von der Leyen.
Merkel wants to find a consensus candidate after a series of regional election votes won by the opposition sharply cut her majority in the Federal Assembly. The 1,240-seat body must vote on a new president by March 18.
MUTTI OF THE NATION
Although Wulff's departure was widely seen as an embarrassing setback for Merkel, the move also served to underscore just how powerful she has become in German politics 6-1/2 years after becoming chancellor.
In the past, German presidents have often served as popular counterweights chancellors, influencing domestic debates on issues like security or the economy.
But Merkel has evolved into a sort of Mutti or mother of the nation herself after years of steady crisis management, leaving little room for others to shine.
Angela Merkel is the real head of state, German daily Die Welt said over the weekend.
For some time now the chancellor has transcended party politics and simply taken the responsibilities of her failed president for herself.
(Reporting By Sarah Marsh, Andreas Rinke, Thorsten Severin, Thomas Seythal and Noah Barkin; Editing by Sophie Hares)