BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives risk a bruising defeat in a May election in Germany's most populous state because the man leading her campaign there, Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen, refuses to risk his cabinet post.
Conservative party leaders and coalition allies have publicly urged Roettgen to give up his cabinet job and commit himself to leading Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) even in opposition in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).
The CDU has fallen five points behind the centre-left Social Democrats and may drop further due to disenchantment over Roettgen's pointed reluctance to stay in the state if he loses.
Merkel pleaded with Roettgen at the weekend to commit himself wholeheartedly but the fresh-faced lawyer, who harbours ambitions to become chancellor one day, rebuffed her. A rout in the state would damage Merkel ahead of her 2013 re-election campaign.
The state, the country's biggest electoral prize and home to one in six voters, is a microcosm of Germany. Changes in coalitions there have been harbingers of change for national governments - most recently in 2005, when the CDU led a centre-right coalition to power there four months before Merkel was elected with the same constellation in Berlin.
"Roettgen's lack of commitment to the state is demotivating to the party's campaign and it will definitely hurt the CDU on election day here," said Ulrich van Alemann, political scientist at Duesseldorf University.
"The CDU is already fighting an uphill battle in NRW because there doesn't appear to be much of an appetite for change," he added, noting the public was satisfied with the work of the ruling SPD-Greens minority government over the last two years.
The SPD-Greens coalition in NRW collapsed last week, three years ahead of schedule, setting the stage for the May 13 vote that the SPD and Greens are poised to win with more than 52 percent in polls. Merkel had not expected an NRW vote before 2013.
One leader of Merkel's Free Democrat (FDP) coalition partners, Development Minister Dirk Niebel, criticised Roettgen indirectly for his attitude and noted that the FDP's top candidate was its former deputy leader Christian Lindner.
"I'm very happy that the FDP is not sending a 60-day candidate to North Rhine-Westphalia for the election," Niebel told Reuters, referring to Roettgen's two-month commitment.
"Roettgen is only making matters worse," said van Alemann. "It looks like he is putting his own career ahead of the state and that's not going down well. It's a huge distraction for the CDU and they can't campaign on debt reduction because everyone focuses on Roettgen's refusal to commit."
A relative youngster in Merkel's cabinet at 46, Roettgen has had a high profile as environment minister but has made some enemies in conservative circles.
Roettgen wants the conservatives to consider a tie-up with the Greens, to the chagrin of traditionalists. He was the first conservative minister to challenge his party's desire to extend the use of nuclear power before the Japanese nuclear disaster.
Horst Seehofer, the conservative state premier of Bavaria, publicly told Roettgen to focus on NRW, as have other senior conservatives, amid concerns that a rout for Merkel would weaken the whole centre right ahead of next year's federal election.
"I'm not going to leave anyone high and dry and I'm not going to leave anyone in the lurch," Roettgen said at a news conference in Duesseldorf on Tuesday, but skirted the question whether he would give up his ministerial job to lead the CDU in NRW in opposition. "I'm fighting to win, not for second place."
Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University, noted the CDU had done well in NRW in the last two elections, only narrowly losing power in 2009 with 34.6 percent after winning 44.8 percent in 2005. But a massive defeat now could have an impact on momentum at the national level.
"It would have a considerably negative effect for Merkel nationally," he said. "At a time in the election cycle a year before the vote when the incumbents tend to gain a bit with voters after the pain of the first two years fades, it could hurt Merkel if the CDU gets clobbered in NRW."
Additional reporting by Stephen Brown; Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Andrew Roche