U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a boost to the candidacy of French finance chief Christine Lagarde for the top job at the IMF on Thursday, but stopped short of endorsing anyone yet.
Clinton said at a conference in Paris that "We welcome women who are well qualified and experienced to head major organizations such as the IMF."
She noted the United States "has not taken a position on any candidacy as yet," but the comment was the clearest indication so far that the U.S. could once again support Europe's traditional claim to name one of their own to the job.
Former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a Frenchman, resigned last week over sex crime allegations.
World leaders at a summit in France will debate over who should be his successor and whether a European should get the job instead of someone from another region, as developing countries argue.
Analysts say the leaders at the Group of Eight summit in Deauville must not take for granted that Lagarde is a shoo-in, as the candidacy of Mexican central bank governor Agustin Carstens could yet gain momentum.
The G8 members have major voting power on IMF's executive board, which is expected to name a new managing director by the end of June. European nations have rallied behind Lagarde, but depend largely on the U.S. vote to secure the job for her.
A battle has been shaping up between developed and developing nations over whether to let another European take the job, as has happened since the IMF was founded in 1946. An American has always been head of the World Bank, the fund's sister organization.
IMF executive directors from the G-20 countries Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa issued a joint statement this week that expressed support for "abandoning the obsolete unwritten practice of convention that requires that the head of the IMF be necessarily from Europe."
They renewed their calls as the world's richest nations met at the G-8, which has been seen as increasingly irrelevant and exclusive _ and recently supplanted by the broader Group of 20 as a forum for decision-making.
In New Delhi on Thursday, Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said developing countries are trying to "consolidate" their position about the IMF succession, according to the Press Trust of India.
Russia's ambassador to France, Alexander Orlov, was quoted by Russian news agencies Wednesday as saying the unwritten rule that has given the job to a West European is out of date in today's world.
"The IMF is an international organization and, quite possibly, time has come to consider a fairer rotation principle for the position," he said, while expressing appreciation for Lagarde's role in fostering French-Russian ties.
China's Foreign Ministry said Beijing supports a G-20 call for an "open, transparent, merit-based selection" as part of reforms of global financial institutions.
South Africa took a firmer stand Thursday. After a Cabinet meeting Thursday, its government said in a statement that it "endorsed the view that the next leadership of the IMF should come from the emerging countries."
Lagarde's office said Thursday she is looking to travel soon to developing countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China to woo their leaders as part of her bid.
The announcement of her candidacy on Wednesday _ the eve of the summit _ has brought the issue to the fore in Deauville, and made it a tough and tender subject for the leaders.
"They're going to walk a fine line," said David Shorr, of the Stanley Foundation think tank. "If the established powers of the G8 get too far with picking an IMF managing director _ and don't work with the rising powers, it could be a source of friction."
John Kirton, a University of Toronto professor who heads the G8 Research Group, an academic panel, said the G8 leaders should commit to "the revolutionary principle that everybody on the planet can compete fairly for the top job of a multilateral organization that belongs to and serves all."
That strategy, he said, would be to show "there is good reason to believe that the best individual on the planet is Christine Lagarde."
"They absolutely don't want to seem to be a small group of eight ganging up on the G192 with France clinging to historical privilege and saying 'we own that seat...'" Kirton said.
Frank Jordans in Paris and Donna Bryson in Johannesburg contributed to this report.