By Madeline Chambers
BERLIN (Reuters) - The head of Germany's opposition Social Democrats (SPD) said on Thursday the arrival of his new baby means he will work less, in the strongest signal yet that he will stand aside to let a rival challenge Angela Merkel for the chancellorship next year.
The race to be the party's candidate to stand against Merkel in next September's election has overshadowed the media's coverage of the SPD this year, not least because there is no single obvious candidate.
The SPD is still trailing Merkel's conservatives by a good ten points in most polls and it has struggled to present policies distinct from those of the ruling coalition both on the euro zone crisis and domestic issues.
There are three likely contenders, including 52-year-old party chairman Sigmar Gabriel who recently became a father and drew criticism for taking a break from politics to look after his baby girl.
Gabriel, a former environment minister and state premier, is known as a feisty campaigner. But he seen by many voters as too mercurial to lead the country and suffers from stubbornly low popularity ratings.
In an interview with Stern magazine, Gabriel said his situation had changed since becoming a father, that he had not spoken to his wife about a move to the German capital and that his family liked living "in the provinces", away from Berlin.
"I will not be available 12 to 16 hours a day and able to be on the road. That won't be possible," he was quoted as saying, adding that being chancellor was not a part-time job.
Gabriel also said that while any party chairman should want to be chosen to run in a national election, "he should also have the deference to stand aside if he has the impression that someone else is a more suitable candidate".
The SPD has said it will decide on its candidate early next year. If Gabriel does stand aside, he would leave two rivals, both of whom served as ministers with him in Merkel's "grand coalition" from 2005 to 2009.
Straight-talking former finance minister Peer Steinbrueck, viewed by some as a loose cannon, started campaigning for the candidacy last year but is unloved by the party's left-wing and some analysts are already ruling him out.
That leaves Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a respected former foreign minister who is the most popular of the three.
However, his track record does not offer much hope. In 2009, he ran against Merkel and delivered the party's worst performance since World War Two, winning 23 percent of the vote.
Many analysts think Merkel's conservative bloc will emerge as the strongest party in next year's election but that she will end up in another right-left coalition with the SPD.
A Forsa poll this week put Merkel's conservatives on 39 percent and the SPD on 26 percent. The pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), who share power in Merkel's centre-right coalition were on 5 percent, down from over 14 percent in the last election. The SPD would prefer to share power with the Greens, who are polling 12 percent.
(Reporting By Madeline Chambers; Editing by Noah Barkin)