BERLIN (Reuters) - The German centre left's candidate to challenge Angela Merkel in next year's federal elections, Peer Steinbrueck, has seen a jump in his approval ratings since his nomination but still lags far behind the chancellor, according to a new poll out on Tuesday.
The Social Democrats (SPD) named the ex-finance minister as their candidate on Friday and formalized this three days later. In a typically acerbic critique, he likened Merkel to a pilot who has forgotten to tell her passengers where they will land.
A new survey by Forsa suggested the SPD's decision to bring forward the selection of its candidate by months was paying off.
The number of respondents who said they would choose the 65-year-old Steinbrueck if they had a direct vote for chancellor rose five points from before his nomination to 34 percent.
He still lags way behind Merkel, but the conservative chancellor's score on the same question fell four points to 46 percent.
German elections are not a presidential face-off between two candidates but a contest among parties for parliamentary seats on the basis of proportional representation, which then provides the basis for negotiations to form a coalition government.
Analysts consider Steinbrueck the SPD contender most likely to poach centrist votes from Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Free Democrat (FDP) coalition allies, thanks to his reputation as a safe pair of hands on economic policy.
The SPD politician led Germany's response to the financial crisis as finance minister in Merkel's 2005-2009 government, a "grand coalition" of centre-right and centre-left. But he has ruled out serving in another Merkel-led cabinet and the SPD's aim is to oust the CDU and govern together with the Greens.
This pledge, plus his tough talk on banks, whose business he plans to split into retail and investment banking units to give ordinary savers and firms more protection, may extend his appeal to the SPD's left, which has long mistrusted his centrist views.
The Forsa poll for Stern magazine and RTL television, which was carried out late last week including the weekend, showed Steinbrueck's candidacy had 77 percent support among the SPD party faithful compared to 61 percent before his nomination.
"With Steinbrueck's selection, SPD supporters are closing ranks. We will have to see whether that lasts," said the Forsa polling institute's chief, Manfred Guellner.
Support for the SPD rose three points from a week earlier to 29 percent and the Greens had 12 percent.
Merkel's conservatives dropped three points to 35 percent while the FDP had 4 percent - putting an SPD/Greens alliance marginally ahead at 41 percent, against a notional 39 percent for the centre-right. Such a coalition would require the FDP to get at least the minimum 5 percent required to enter parliament.
(Reporting by Stephen Brown; Editing by Kevin Liffey)