BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Friday she would consult the centre-left opposition about a consensus candidate to replace Christian Wulff, who quit over a series of allegations about favours and his private finances.
Merkel hand-picked Wulff, a politician from her Christian Democratic Union (CDU), for the largely ceremonial post of head of state in 2010 after the former International Monetary Fund head Horst Koehler resigned as German president.
Her decision to consult the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens is a reversal of her position in 2010, when she insisted on Wulff - former state premier of Lower Saxony - over a more popular non-partisan candidate, Joachim Gauck.
Below is a selection of possible candidates for the new presidential election, which must happen by March 18. The head of state is voted by a special assembly of the Bundestag (lower house of parliament) and delegates for the German states.
Joachim Gauck - rights campaigner
The 72-year-old former Protestant pastor and anti-communist rights activist from East Germany should be a frontrunner, not least because he became so popular in 2010 when the opposition nominated him to run against Wulff. He ended up forcing the election to a third round.
Widely seen as having the moral authority that Wulff lacked, the Cold War shaped his life. At the age of 11 his father was arrested by communist authorities and sent to a Siberian gulag. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he ran the state-run archives on the Stasi, earning recognition for exposing the crimes of the dreaded East German secret police. More recently he has had to defend his decision to keep former Stasi employees working at the archives.
Der Spiegel magazine, along with most German media, backed Gauck as candidate in 2010 and Focus magazine this week ran a cover story entitled "The Secret President," about his new book.
Ursula von der Leyen - labour minister
Consistently one of the most popular members of the conservative government, von der Leyen was passed over by Merkel in the search for a presidential candidate in 2010 in favour of Wulff, which reportedly soured relations between the two women.
Von der Leyen, a 53-year-old doctor and mother of seven, was born in Brussels to an aristocratic family, her father a prominent CDU politician. She became popular as family minister for pushing through more generous maternity and paternity benefits, partly to boost Germany's birth rate.
Profiling herself as one of the few potential challengers to Merkel in the government, she drew criticism from colleagues this week for saying wage rises should be above inflation. Although a moderate, von der Leyen may be too closely linked to Merkel's government to be acceptable to opposition parties.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier - former foreign minister
Social Democrat parliamentary floor leader Steinmeier ran against Merkel in the 2009 election and failed to galvanise his party. However, as foreign minister in Merkel's coalition government between 2005 and 2009 he won popularity and respect. He also worked with Merkel as vice chancellor for two years.
As former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's chief of staff between 1999 and 2005, he forged a reputation as an effective behind-the-scenes fixer. A moderate within the SPD, the white-haired, bespectacled 56-year-old gained sympathy for donating a kidney to his wife and may be one of the few members of an opposition party who would be palatable to conservatives.
Wolfgang Schaeuble - finance minister
Wheelchair bound since a deranged man shot him a week after German unification, the 69-year-old conservative is one of the country's most respected politicians, at home and abroad. Gruff and outspoken, Schaeuble is committed to European unity and has played a decisive role in the euro-zone debt crisis - meaning Merkel is likely to think twice before sending him to Bellevue Palace.
Health complications occasionally put him out of action but Schaeuble is a workhorse with a tough reputation from a previous role as interior minister. He often gets higher approval ratings than Merkel, coming first in the latest Deutschlandtrend poll with 65 percent.
Schaeuble had set his sights on becoming president back in 2004, but Merkel declined to back him over the objections of the Free Democrats (FDP). Like von der Leyen and other CDU politicians, he may be unacceptable to the opposition.
Thomas de Maiziere - defence minister
One of Merkel's most trusted aides, De Maiziere may be too close to the chancellor for the opposition's taste. The son of a top German army general, he has a serious demeanour and was previously Merkel's cabinet chief and interior minister.
The 58-year-old politician was born in Bonn and hails from the chancellor's CDU. He gets high approval ratings, coming third with 60 percent in the latest Deutschlandtrend poll.
Norbert Lammert - speaker of the Bundestag
The mild-mannered 63-year-old president of the Bundestag has a low profile compared to the other potential candidates but may be more palatable to the main opposition Social Democrats (SPD), who backed him for the speaker's post in 2005.
Lammert, from the CDU, has not shied from speaking out against the government about potential threats to parliament's role. He has insisted that MPs be consulted fully on the bailout schemes for the euro zone debt crisis.
(Reporting by Stephen Brown; Editing by Jon Boyle)