By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel signaled for the first time her intention to seek a third term in 2013, although a poll on Sunday showed Peer Steinbrueck of the main opposition party gaining more support from voters.
Merkel made the announcement indirectly in an interview with Sat-1 TV. Although her intention to lead her conservative Christian Democrats into the campaign for a third term was no surprise, the timing just before the summer break was unusual.
"Well, I do hope that the SPD come up with an opposing candidate for the next parliamentary elections," Merkel told Sat-1, Germany's fifth-most watched network, in an interview that aired on Friday and initially attracted little public notice.
Even though Steinbrueck, a conservative voice in the center-left Social Democrats, or SPD, is popular among voters on the right, Merkel said she had no worries about him or other SPD leaders who might carry their banner in the vote due in 2013.
"I know all those (candidates) whose names are being bandied about in public," said Merkel, elected in 2005 and re-elected in 2009. "So why don't we just wait and see what happens?"
Steinbrueck, a blunt-talking finance minister under Merkel in the grand coalition government from 2005 to 2009, has emerged only recently as the strongest SPD candidate.
The SPD is expected to decide on a candidate in 2012, but party insiders say preliminary decisions will be taken in 2011. Intermittent speculation that Merkel's coalition may not survive until 2013 has led to calls in the SPD to pick a candidate soon.
RULING COALITION LAGS IN POLLS
Merkel's center-right coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats, or FDP, has trailed the opposition SPD and Greens in polls most of the past two years, even though surveys found the chancellor to have strong personal favorable ratings.
Her coalition has been buffeted by tensions between the Christian Democrats and the FDP. The Free Democrats have pushed for tax cuts, as they promised in the last election, even though 70 percent of voters say debt reduction is more important.
A poll published in the Bild am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday found Steinbrueck well ahead of Merkel in the "more likeable" category, holding a 45 percent to 36 percent advantage.
It also found Steinbrueck holding leads among voters over Merkel in key categories like economic expertise and domestic security, although Merkel was stronger on foreign policy and social welfare.
"Steinbrueck would be an extremely dangerous candidate for the conservatives," Emnid polling institute head Klaus-Peter Schoeppner told the newspaper, adding the public felt he was more in touch with the problems of ordinary people than Merkel.
"If the SPD nominates Steinbrueck, the voting behavior of German voters is going to be turned upside down," he added.
In a poll on Friday by ARD TV, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, Christian Social Union, fell by 1 percentage point in July to 32 percent -- their lowest this year. The FDP was at 5 percent, down from 14.8 percent in the 2009 vote.
The SPD rose one point to 26 percent, while its preferred coalition allies, the Greens, fell one point to 23 percent.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)