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Second CDU premier drops support for Laschet's German chancellery run

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BERLIN (Reuters) -A second Christian Democrat state premier has called for the conservative bloc's choice of German chancellor candidate for September's election to be linked to popularity ratings, effectively shifting his support behind Bavarian Markus Soeder.

With CDU Chancellor Angela Merkel stepping down after the election, pressure is mounting on the bloc to agree on a candidate as its ratings wallow near a one-year low, hurt by the government's chaotic handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The race between Armin Laschet, Christian Democrat (CDU) chairman, and Soeder, head of the CDU's Bavarian CSU sister party, has descended into a messy spat despite both men vowing on Sunday to make a quick and amicable decision.

As leader of the larger CDU, Laschet would normally be first choice. However, with a swagger that has made him consistently more popular with voters, Soeder has sought to make his popularity a decisive a factor in the race.

Tobias Hans, CDU premier of the tiny western state of Saarland, told daily newspaper Die Welt: "It is absolutely clear that the question of which person you have a better chance with in the elections has to play a central role."

Hans' comment effectively shows he backs the Bavarian. CDU Saxony-Anhalt state premier Reiner Haseloff has also switched his support to Soeder.

But the CDU elite threw its weight behind Laschet again.

"We stand behind Armin Laschet with all our strength and determination," CDU Secretary General Paul Ziemiak told the Rheinische Post newspaper. "We must now make the decision on the candidate for chancellor together quickly and establish unity."

In a survey by pollster INSA published on Friday, the CDU/CSU is still the largest bloc, on 28%, ahead of the Greens on 20%, but would need at least one coalition partner.

Laschet ally and Health Minister Jens Spahn said the candidacy question should be clarified this week, with Laschet and Soeder ideally coming to an agreement. Laschet was the natural choice, Spahn added.

"We elected him as our chairman in January. And everyone who voted for him knew that he was also nominating the CDU's candidate for chancellor," Spahn told Deutschlandfunk.

An ARD Deutschlandtrend survey published on Friday found 44% of German voters and 72% of CDU/CSU supporters considered Soeder to be the more suitable candidate.

In contrast, only 15% of Germans and 17% of CDU/CSU backers think Laschet, who is premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, is the more suitable candidate, the survey by the Infratest Dimap polling institute found.

CSU deputy party leader Dorothee Baer kept up support for the Bavarian leader, telling Deutschlandfunk radio: "I would say he is the one who has the most support."

(Reporting by Caroline Copley and Paul Carrel; Editing by Alison Williams)