By Andres Gonzalez and Nigel Davies
MADRID (Reuters) - Spain's governing Socialists chose Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba as leader for what analysts see as a doomed campaign to reverse slumping fortunes ahead of a general election next year.
Voters mauled the government in local polls last weekend over its austerity measures and a struggling economy that has left Spain with the highest unemployment rate in the European Union at 21.3 percent.
"Rubalcaba is the best candidate, but what the party really needed was someone to revitalize the party," said David Bach, political economist at IE business school.
"He's headed for a respectable second place in the elections," he said, behind the conservative Partido Popular which holds an opinion poll lead of around 10 percentage points.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose ratings have slumped and who announced in April he would not stand for another term, backed Rubalcaba as the Socialists' best chance for victory.
"He is confident and is capable of generating confidence and credibility that the party needs right now. I must remind you that he is a sprinter. If he's capable of running the 100 meters in just over 10 seconds, then he's capable of winning the elections in 10 months," Zapatero said.
Rubalcaba's leadership should be formalized in an all-party vote in June when he is expected to be the only candidate.
"From today we are going to think about the future," Rubalcaba said after receiving wide baking from party members.
"We're going to talk about new ideas, new alternatives, new changes, a new plan that I have in my heart aimed at the main worry for everyone: work."
One analyst said he was disappointed that although the party would hold primary elections to nominate a successor, a tougher contest against other candidates would have served the Socialists better.
On Thursday, Defense Minister Carme Chacon said she would not seek the Socialist candidacy, clearing the way for Rubalcaba.
Zapatero defended his policies of slashing civil servant wages and labor and pension reforms, which he said were needed for Spain to avoid falling into crisis.
Zapatero also said the government would continue working to create jobs and make sure the country does not slip into a debt crisis that has already led to bailouts for Portugal, Ireland and Greece.
"If we keep the ability for Spain to finance itself, make changes and maintain stability the recovery will come."
(Editing by Elizabeth Piper)