She has been interior minister of the state of Saarland before becoming its leader, a position she held for six years, and earlier this year was elected to the post of general secretary of the CDU securing 99% of party support. This afternoon 1,001 CDU delegates will assemble in Hamburg to choose a new leader after 18 years under Mrs Merkel.
While AKK, 56, is viewed as a keeper of the flame and similar to Merkel with an even temper and middle-of-the-road policies, Merz, 63, has become the torchbearer for those seeking a more decisive break with the chancellor.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will hand over the reins of her Christian Democratic Union after almost two decades, with the fate of the divided party up for grabs between a loyal deputy and a longtime rival. "Over her four terms as Germany's chancellor, her leadership has done much to shape the course not only of her nation, but also of Europe and the larger world".
Sometimes dubbed "mini Merkel", Kramp-Karrenbauer is admired by the CDU upper echelons for her appeal across the party.
"Angela Merkel is one of our era's most globally respected leaders, a statesperson of formidable intellect, commitment, empathy, and principle", said Margaret Wang, president of the Harvard Alumni Association.
Party insiders say she gets on well with Merkel.
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They were said to be reasonably close, and the lack of communication between the two raised eyebrows at the time.
Outlining the multiple challenges facing Germany, from rapidly changing technology to climate change and a global shift away from multilateralism to defending national interests, she said: "In times like these, we will defend our liberal views, our way of life, both at home and overseas".
While she has called for tougher policies on refugees who commit crimes, AKK firmly backed Merkel's fateful 2015 decision to welcome more than one million asylum-seekers from crisis zones such as Syria and Iraq.
A survey by pollster Infratest dimap for broadcaster ARD on Thursday showed 47 per cent of CDU members favoured Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer compared with 37 per cent for Mr Merz and 12 per cent for Health Minister Jens Spahn.
National broadsheet Sueddeutsche Zeitung said Schaeuble's move signalled that the CDU's long-festering divisions, thinly veiled by unity behind Merkel, could well break out in the open after the conference.
Merkel announced in October she would give up the reins in her party, though she plans to remain chancellor until her current term ends in 2021.
But on what lies ahead for the CDU, Kramp-Karrenbauer said when campaigning: "I have no particular recipe".
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