BERLIN (Reuters) - Social Democrat Peer Steinbrueck's hopes of going head to head with Angela Merkel next year for the top job in German politics got a boost on Friday when the feisty ex-finance minister won the endorsement of former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Steinbrueck, 65, is one of three senior lawmakers vying to lead the opposition centre-left SPD into the 2013 election against Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU).
"I would be delighted if Peer Steinbrueck became the SPD's candidate for chancellor. He has every prospect of success," said Schroeder, who led Germany in 1998-2005, according to excerpts from a new biography of Steinbrueck to be published in this weekend's Die Welt am Sonntag newspaper.
Schroeder is the second former SPD chancellor to endorse Steinbrueck after Helmut Schmidt, 93, who led Germany from 1974 to 1982.
Schroeder's endorsement of Steinbrueck comes as the SPD, emboldened by Socialist Francois Hollande's victory in France's presidential election, steps up its attacks on Merkel's policies of fiscal austerity to end the euro zone crisis.
The SPD is expected to keep control of Germany's most populous state, North-Rhine Westphalia, in an election on Sunday, an outcome that would further hurt Merkel as she battles to keep the euro zone on a path of strict budget discipline.
With Germany's own economy currently booming despite the euro zone crisis, Merkel remains the country's most popular politician and a recent opinion poll showed her CDU well ahead of its rivals, with 35 percent against the SPD's 27 percent.
But she is vulnerable because of a collapse in support for her current coalition partner, the liberal Free Democrats. The SPD's preferred future partner, the Greens, are much stronger, though many political analysts believe a CDU-SPD 'grand coalition' led by Merkel is the most likely option after the 2013 poll.
Steinbrueck served as finance minister in a similar Merkel-led right-left coalition between 2005 to 2009.
Known for his quick wit and combative style, Steinbrueck led Berlin's response to the global financial crisis.
In opposition, he has attacked Merkel's cautious, step-by-step approach to tackling the euro zone debt crisis, saying she lacks vision and boldness.
He also upset Switzerland during a 2009 drive to clamp down on tax havens, likening Germany's small southern neighbor to "Indians" running scared from the cavalry. The remarks led a member of the Swiss parliament to compare him to the Nazis.
Steinbrueck is distrusted by members of the SPD's left wing for his centrist economic views.
The other possible SPD candidates for chancellor are party chairman Sigmar Gabriel and SPD parliamentary leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was foreign minister and vice-chancellor in the last 'grand coalition'. The party has said it will choose its candidate towards the end of the year.
(Reporting by Holger Hansen, writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Noah Barkin)