Merkel Pivots to General Election With Boost From Regional Votes

It could give conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel new momentum in her quest for a fourth term - or offer her center-left challenger some relief.

While Schulz now holds no public office besides SPD chief and thus has no natural platform beyond the stump, Merkel'office provides her with the best stage to burnish her reputation as Germany's Stabilitätsanker (anchor of stability) in an unstable world.

But the results marked a huge blow to Martin Schulz, who had generated a strong surge in support for the SPD when he took over the party in February. "I want a strong SPD, CDU and FDP, because I think those are the parties that may actually be able to improve things", said a younger man.

Kraft immediately announced her resignation from all party offices late 14 May after the bad results of the SPD in the federal state elections of North Rhine-Westphalia.

After the elections, there are several options for coalition, including a "Grand coalition" of conservatives and social Democrats in effect at the Federal level.

Sunday's election was the last before the national vote.

Nationally, too, the focus on stability and security over change and social justice seem to be paying off: the CDU is 10 percentage points ahead of the SPD in polls.

SPD state premier Hannelore Kraft quickly conceded defeat and said she would stand down as her party's local leader.

Asked about the national election in September, Ms Merkel's chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, said: "We always have to keep a cool head...we shouldn't talk about coalitions before the harvest is in".

However, pre-election polls indicated that the SPD is in a tie with Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrat (CDU) Party.

Schulz allies sought to take comfort in the fact that the defeat of North Rhine-Westphalia's Social Democratic governor, Hannelore Kraft, was unexpected until recently.

The western state, which includes Cologne, Duesseldorf and the Ruhr industrial region, is a traditional stronghold of Schulz's Social Democrats.

Merkel's image as an experienced leader who can provide stability resonates with many risk-averse Germans.

In the run-up to yesterday's vote, Mr Schulz had held more than 30 rallies in the state, where he began his political career in Wuerselen.

But Dr Merkel, who had also gone all out to sway the state of 18 million people, including 4.2 million of migrant origin, took aim at Mr Schulz's arguments.

The populist, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is also looking to secure a spot in the NRW state parliament, which would see the party enter 13 out of Germany's 16 state parliaments. But that failed to translate into votes in the last two state elections, when the CDU won comfortably. The Christian Democrats will most likely try to form a government with the pro-business Free Democrats, which won 12%, or with the defeated Social Democrats as junior partners.

She added that "the big issue of security" will also be an important election theme.

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