By Lesley Wroughton and Rachelle Younglai
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner believes French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde is an "exceptionally talented" candidate to lead the International Monetary Fund, the Treasury said on Thursday in a statement that stopped short of an endorsement.
Lagarde was in Washington this week to make her case to replace Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who resigned as IMF chief after being arrested on sexual assault charges.
Lagarde is competing with Mexican central bank governor Agustin Carstens for the top job at a time when the IMF's role has become more relevant with economic crises in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Geithner "believes that Minister Lagarde's strong leadership skills and experience makes her an exceptionally talented candidate for IMF managing director," a Treasury spokeswoman said after the two finance ministers met.
The spokeswoman said Geithner and Lagarde had discussed the situation in Europe, where Greece is under pressure to impose fresh austerity measures in return for a further disbursement of funds from an IMF/European Union bailout package.
Lagarde is viewed as the front runner to head the IMF, a position historically held by a European, and the United States is widely expected to back her.
Carstens himself has admitted he is a long-shot candidate but is stopping in various countries touting his experience in crisis management and saying he would be a fresh pair of eyes on Europe's debt crisis.
The IMF's 24-member board will vote next week on who should succeed Strauss-Kahn as its managing director.
Emerging countries are pushing for more say on the IMF and are trying to break Europe's 65-year-old hold on the fund. So far Lagarde has the backing of Europe, which controls one-third of the votes. Most of Carstens' support is in Latin America.
The United States and Japan, which have the two largest voting shares, have not endorsed a candidate. But Geithner has publicly said both Lagarde and Carstens are credible.
Carstens has a strong mixture of financial talent and political skills and that makes him an "exceptionally capable candidate" to head the IMF, Geithner said after meeting with the Mexican central banker last week.
Lagarde is due to meet the IMF's board on Thursday. On Tuesday, she held bilateral meetings with individual board directors, which represent the fund's 187 member countries.
The U.S. Treasury is unlikely to endorse a specific candidate until the IMF board moves forward on the matter.
(Editing by Leslie Adler)