By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's opposition Social Democrats climbed to 32 percent in an opinion poll published on Sunday, helped by a surge in popularity for a new leader, a woman who could challenge Chancellor Angela Merkel in elections in 15 months' time.
Hannelore Kraft, re-elected state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia in May, soared from nowhere to place third on Der Spiegel's list of 20 most popular politicians, just behind Merkel who is second only to President Joachim Gauck.
The straight-talking daughter of a tram worker won plaudits for steering Germany's most populous state through economic crisis, helping the SPD rise 2 points since December to just 3 points behind the conservatives in the TNS Forschung institute published in Der Spiegel.
At 32 percent, the SPD is now up 9 points from its score in the 2009 federal election, a drubbing that ended its 11-year run in power and, together with its preferred allies, the Greens, is close to getting the votes needed to control parliament.
With the Greens at 13 percent, the two parties combined would get 45 percent, close to the 47 to 48 percent usually needed for a parliamentary majority in a system where parties with less than 5 percent do not get any seats.
Sunday's poll showed Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), steady at 35 percent but their coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), were at 4 percent - up 1 from December but down 10.6 from the 2009 result.
The FDP has now been below 5 percent threshold needed for seats in parliament in the Spiegel poll for more than one year.
While Merkel's personal popularity has risen during the euro zone crisis and many Germans back her firm positions against highly indebted euro zone countries, squabbling in her centre-right coalition over unpopular moves on issues from child care to anti-terrorism laws have damaged her government's standing.
The poll was conducted on June 26 and 27 so did not reflect any impact from last week's EU summit where some pundits say Merkel gave too much in a deal to protect euro zone banks.
RISING STAR IN SPD
"Kraft is the new beacon of hope for the SPD," Der Spiegel wrote. The SPD's three main candidates - SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel, parliamentary floor leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier and ex Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck - all trail the 51-year-old Kraft in popularity, the magazine said.
Even though Kraft has said she does not want to run against Merkel in 2013 and would rather concentrate on her job in NRW, that view could change if her party urged her to carry its banner into the federal election.
In Germany, leaders who openly express ambitions are often cut down by critics, including from within their own party.
Another recent poll by ZDF television network showed Kraft even ahead of Merkel as Germany's most popular politician.
The poll in Der Spiegel showed the anti-establishment Pirates Party [ID:nL5E8FU0P2], which won a shock 8.9 percent of the vote in a local election in Berlin last year, at 7 percent and the Left party right at the 5 percent threshold.
Another poll by Emnid published in Bild am Sonntag on Sunday showed the Pirates at 8 percent, down 4 points from the same poll conducted in April.
If the FDP and Left party fail to win at least 5 percent and get seats in the next parliament, the SPD-Greens alliance could possibly win a majority with as little as 42 percent, political scientists have noted. (Editing by Robin Pomeroy)