By Michelle Martin
BERLIN (Reuters) - Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer's election as general-secretary of Germany's ruling party puts her in pole position to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor after spending most of her career in a tiny state on the French border.
Combining social conservatism with left-wing economic views, AKK - as she is often known - is a close Merkel ally.
But taking on an important national role for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is a big step for the unassuming 55-year-old who has been premier of the state of Saarland until now and likes dressing as a cleaner during an annual pre-Lent carnival.
Dubbed a "Mini-Merkel" by German media, she is moving into a job that Merkel had before she became chancellor and is increasingly seen as heir apparent though a coalition deal that will keep Merkel in power is now close.
After her election on Monday, Kramp-Karrenbauer said: "There comes a time in everybody's life when it's no longer enough to point and say he or she should do it, but you have to answer yourself ... That's why I put myself at the party's service."
In her new role she will organise the party, election campaigns and congresses, support the work of the party's chief - Merkel - and represent the CDU's views externally.
Mass-selling newspaper Bild put Kramp-Karrenbauer's appeal down to being "a very average person" to whom ordinary Germans could relate.
But Kramp-Karrenbauer once said of herself: "It's hard to pigeonhole me."
She attracted attention and respect from fellow conservatives last year by winning a resounding victory in a state election which Merkel described as "sensational".
Her triumph punctured the hype around Martin Schulz, then the newly elected leader of the rival Social Democrats, and gave the conservative CDU momentum before a federal election.
Saarland's first female premier, she rose to prominence in 2012 by calling off a three-way coalition with the Greens and liberal Free Democrats (FDP) after just five months in office. The gamble alarmed some conservatives but paid off when she emerged victorious from the subsequent snap election.
Economically she is on the CDU's left, being a strong advocate of the minimum wage. Before the 2013 national election she suggested the top rate of tax be raised to 53 percent, resulting in the FDP's Rainer Bruederle branding her a "Socialist varnished in (the CDU's) black".
But she is conservative on social issues, opposing advertising for abortions, and caused controversy in 2015 by saying allowing same-sex marriages could open the door to incest and polygamy.
Her conservatism manifests itself in modern forms. She married at 22, but it is her husband, a former mining engineer, who stays at home to look after their three children while she focuses on her career.
"My husband and I had a very pragmatic agreement right from the start: whoever earns more works full time," she once said. "So we switched the classic roles."
A headmaster's daughter, Kramp-Karrenbauer grew up in a Catholic family, going to church on Sundays and not eating meat on Fridays.
Kramp-Karrenbauer has said she does not want the CDU to shift to the right despite the party losing voters to the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) in September's election.
But she has called for asylum seekers who deceive authorities about their identity to be dealt with more toughly and for more resolute action on deportations.
A strong proponent of female quotas for supervisory boards in companies, Kramp-Karrenbauer has made digitalisation and boosting ties with neighbouring France her pet projects.
The CDU has faced calls for fresh faces at the top following a disappointing election result in September, when it remained the biggest party but failed to win a majority.
"She represents a modern CDU very well," said Paul Ziemiak, leader of the CDU's youth wing.
The self-described optimist's work ethic impressed Merkel when she continued to plough through coalition papers from her hospital bed after a car accident last month.
Kramp-Karrenbauer has lived her whole life in Puettlingen, a western town of around 20,000. A fan of Australian rock band AC/DC, she prides herself on her ability to make beef soup, describes herself as a bookworm and keeps pet tortoises.
She initially wanted to be a midwife and considered becoming a teacher, but joined the CDU when she was 18 and went on to study political science and law.
She started out as a town councillor and later took a job as planning and policy advisor for the regional CDU before becoming Germany's first female regional interior minister in 2000.
"There's no task you can't trust Annegret with," former Saarland premier Peter Mueller said in 2000.
A member of the CDU's national executive committee since 2010, Kramp-Karrenbauer is seen as a competent all-rounder.
But her only previous experience in federal politics came in the late 1990s, when she replaced another lawmaker in the lower house of parliament for about seven months before losing that seat in the 1998 election.
She has said she did not plan to have a political career but a series of "fortunate coincidences" had helped her achieve that.
(Additional reporting by Paul Carrel, Editing by Timothy Heritagein)