Bavaria's CSU rallies behind struggling Laschet as German vote looms

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BERLIN (Reuters) - Armin Laschet, the conservative candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor, received strong support from Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU) on Saturday as he mounts a push to close the gap in the polls with the Social Democrats (SPD) two weeks before the national election.

Christian Democrat (CDU) leader Laschet, the chancellor candidate for Angela Merkel's CDU/CSU alliance, is struggling to draw voters ahead of the Sept. 26 vote in which Merkel is not running for a historic fifth term.

CDU grandees backed Laschet in April as the conservative candidate ahead of Markus Soeder, the popular leader of the CSU. The two parties form a parliamentary bloc and some in Bavaria are less than enthusiastic about the joint candidate.

However, on the last day of their party conference, CSU delegates cheered and applauded as Laschet entered the hall and gave him a long a standing ovation after a wide-ranging and combative speech.

Laschet said the election was a decisive moment for Germany, even if the last few weeks had not gone so well for the conservatives. He targeted his SPD rival Olaf Scholz, currently Finance Minister in the ruling coalition with the conservatives.

"He only did a decent job (with the economy) because Angela Merkel was keeping an eye on him," he said, drawing laughter.

He also demanded an apology from Scholz for criticising prosecutors who raided the finance and justice ministries as part of an investigation into the government's anti-money laundering agency.

The raids on Thursday, which highlight German failings in tackling financial crime, come at a pivotal moment for Scholz who had said prosecutors could have put their "straightforward" questions in writing.

"At a time when prosecutors are searching a ministry, the right response is to say we will help prosecutors, not to cast doubt on the rule of law. That helps populists when you react like that," Laschet said to thunderous applause.

"I hope he apologises," said Laschet, adding Germany should be a model in accepting the actions of justice officials while it criticises populist governments elsewhere for discrediting prosecutors and judges.

At the end of the speech, Soeder grasped Laschet's hand and raised it in the air, calling him Germany's next chancellor.

"We stand 100% behind our joint chancellor candidate and want to see Armin Laschet in the chancellery," the CSU leader said in his keynote conference speech on Friday.

A FGW poll on Friday put support for the SPD at 25%, ahead of the CDU/CSU bloc on 22%, the Greens on 17%.

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Mike Harrison)

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