The German leader paid a visit to Bavaria’s Premier Markus Soeder, heaping praise on the man widely tipped to replace her. Mrs Merkel’s decision to attend a meeting of Bavaria’s cabinet was widely seen as a coronation of her successor after the wealthy southern state’s aggressive management of the coronavirus crisis raised Mr Soeder’s profile nationally.
The country’s largest newspaper, Bild, dubbed him the “crown prince”.
While Mrs Merkel lauded the premier as a strong leader but stopped short of officially endorsing him ahead of the federal vote next year.
She said: “You will not hear me comment on the issue of who will succeed me in any form or in any forum.
“All I can say is that Bavaria has a good premier and he invited me today.”
When pressed by reporters to be more specific she declined.
She only said that she would always accept invitations from state premiers.
Some interpreted Mr Soeder’s invitation to Chancellor Merkel as a calculated move to present him as a national, rather than merely the Bavarian leader.
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According to a Forsa study carried out for broadcasters RTL and NTV on Tuesday, 52 percent of respondents back him for Chancellor.
In terms of polling, he is the leading contender to replace Mrs Merkel following the resignation of her heir apparent Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer earlier this year.
The former leader of the Christian Democratic Party stepped down following a series of gaffes and flagging popularity.
Mr Soeder was among the first of Germany’s 16 powerful state premiers to impose lockdowns and roll out mass testing programmes as the virus swept into Germany.
He also made multiple assertive national TV appearances during the pandemic.
Bavaria’s success contrasts with that of North Rhine-Westphalia, whose premier Armin Laschet is the other front-runner for the conservative nomination.
North Rhine-Westphalia is roughly the same size as the Netherlands and is Germany’s most populous state.
Mr Laschet has had a tougher time mastering the pandemic.
One recent outbreak of COVID-19 in his state occurred in a slaughterhouse in Guetersloh, infecting thousands.