BERLIN — When Germany's Handelsblatt newspaper polled voters on which of the country's major politicians they wanted to hear more from in 2021, they had a clear favorite answer: none of them.

The lineup included the three men vying to become leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and her possible political heir when she steps away this year.

The winner of voting at this weekend’s online party conference normally would have a clear path to become the Christian Democrats’ candidate as chancellor to seek to replace Merkel, who has said she won’t run for reelection when Germany holds elections in September.

But nothing is a given this time — considering that none of the would-be leaders have managed to make much of a ripple with potential voters.

The open field underscores the challenge the party faces in forging its post-Merkel identity ahead of elections that will mark an end to her 16-year run as chancellor. Her steady leadership through the uncertainty of the global pandemic has made her more popular than ever with the electorate.

That puts her party in a strong position ahead of elections — enjoying a 10 percentage-point boost since the beginning of the pandemic — and would give the party’s candidate a good shot at becoming Germany’s new leader.

In the running are longtime Merkel rival Friedrich Merz; foreign policy expert Norbert Roettgen; and Armin Laschet, the premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the country’s industrial heartland and the region from which all three candidates hail.

The new party leader will be decided by 1,001 party delegates — most of whom hold political positions of some kind. Results won’t be announced until Jan. 22 as delegates vote by mail.

To have such an unclear contest for the party leadership is unprecedented, said one politician with the Christian Democrats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly about the situation within the party.

“Every candidate has tremendous unsolved strategic problems,” he said. “And that’s pretty clear to most delegates.”

He said that he had spoken to dozens and that at least a third appeared still to be undecided.

“Anything could happen,” the politician added.

A year ago, questions over who would succeed Merkel as leader of the party and become its likely candidate for elections appeared to have been settled.

At the party’s 2018 conference, Merkel’s preferred successor and protegee, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, narrowly won a closely fought leadership race against Merz and became the party’s candidate-in-waiting.

But after a string of political stumbles, culminating in a scandal over the party’s aligning with the far right in a regional election, Kramp-Karrenbauer announced her resignation last February.

The pandemic has twice delayed the vote to choose a replacement. At the same time, Merkel’s popularity has surged. She has approval ratings of about 70 percent.

“Replacing Angela Merkel is a very difficult job,” said Jürgen Falter, a political science professor at the University of Mainz. “Her footprints are really remarkable, and each of the candidates will have a problem following them.”

A lackluster trio

Among the three in the race, Laschet is seen as the continuity candidate. He has given little indication that he’ll move far from Merkel’s course on foreign policy.

As well as being state leader, he has led the party’s branch in North Rhine-Westphalia, its most powerful regional faction, since 2017. But while he may be popular with the party’s middle management, which will make the decision, he is the least popular of the three candidates in most polling of German voters.

Then there is Roettgen, who a decade ago was seen as the Christian Democrats’ wunderkind, earning him the nickname “mutti’s klugster,” or “mother’s smartest,” and regularly projected as a successor to Merkel, who is often called “Mutti.” But Merkel fired him from her cabinet after he led the party in 2012 to its worst election loss in North Rhine-Westphalia. 

Roettgen, the head of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, has positioned himself as a modernizer and could be a consensus candidate within the party.

A poll of Christian Democrat supporters this week by the German channel ARD showed Merz ahead with 29 percent and Roettgen and Laschet at 25 percent.

But it’s not the broad party membership that votes, only the selected 1,001 delegates.

That could hurt the third candidate, Merz, who is not as popular among the party decision-makers as he is with the broader rank and file, Falter said.

“He’s too independent, too outspoken, and he likes being in conflict with others,” he said. “Party middle management, they don’t like that.”

Merz is seen as the biggest break from Merkel’s tenure and would be expected to steer the party back to its right-wing roots after Merkel moved it to the center.

In a staid televised debate among the three hopefuls late last year, Merz dominated the post-debate coverage with his comments blaming Germany’s jobless figures on the influx of refugees in 2015.

It has been more than a decade since Merkel edged him out of politics, and there is no secret of the animosity between the two. Merz, a millionaire who has served on the German boards of firms including BlackRock and Ernst & Young, announced a return to politics in 2018 after Merkel announced that she would not run for reelection.

The Merkel factor

Whoever wins the leadership race, questions of who will be the party’s election candidate in September will persist. No one can be sure how much of the party’s recent boost is attributable to Merkel.

“This has given us a new chance,” said Michael Meister, a CDU member of parliament. “But the question is what will happen when the pandemic goes away.”

That leaves a party trying to figure out how much to break from her tenure.

“On one hand, we should not make a distance from Angela Merkel and the government of the last 15 years. And on the other hand, we have to show it’s a government of the future,” Meister said.

Then there is another quandary. The Christian Democrats must jointly decide on their candidate with their smaller sister party, the Christian Social Union, which runs solely in the state of Bavaria.

And that party’s leader, Markus Söder, comes close to Merkel’s approval ratings. In a December poll by Der Spiegel magazine, 60 percent of respondents said they would like to see him play an “important role” in Germany’s future.

Jens Spahn, the country’s health minister, also came in at 60 percent. Röttgen and Merz trailed at 34 percent, and Laschet at 31.

“At the end of the day, the question is: With whom can you win the general election?” said another Christian Democrat politician, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the deliberations. “If the members of the party come to the belief that Markus Söder is the better candidate, then it’s likely he could be the candidate.”

In recent weeks, party officials have also raised the possibility that the candidate could be someone else entirely, such as Spahn.

“For the CDU, the challenge of what to do after Merkel has been hanging for a long time,” said Sarah Wiliarty, an associate professor at Wesleyan University who researches women in European political parties. “Her stamp on the party is so incredibly long-standing that I don’t think they’ve really figured out what to do next.”

William Glucroft contributed to this report.