It wasn’t supposed to be this close.
Julia Klöckner, a rising star of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party and tipped by some as a possible successor to the top post, had long looked like she would coast to her first governorship.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, a wealthy south-west German state that borders France and Belgium, Ms. Klöckner led the current officeholder by more than 10 points for a long time.
Then came the refugee crisis, a challenge that has torn at the very fabric of Ms. Merkel’s “Union” — the conservative alliance of Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
The political alliance has been sharply split between those that support Ms. Merkel’s open-door policy and a more conservative wing, led by Bavarian state governor and CSU party leader Horst Seehofer, who has demanded strict controls on the number of refugees allowed into the country.
Ms. Klöckner, a once-loyal representative of Ms. Merkel, has sought to take a middle path, one that it seems may now have backfired. In the state elections, she’s finding herself having to explain why she diverged from the chancellor’s welcoming policy and presented her own “Plan A2” that would speed up deportations.
“There is no screenplay for this huge task,” she now says on the campaign trail, but prefers to talk about local state issues — improved education, more security, solid finances.
Polls ahead of Sunday’s crucial state elections in Rhineland-Palatinate for the first time predict a down-to-the-wire race between the two top candidates, Ms. Klöckner and the current state governor, Malu Dreyer of the left-leaning Social Democratic party.
Suddenly, everything seems open in the first duel between two women for the political leadership of a German state.