By Robin Emmott
HELSINKI (Reuters) - A reserved Bavarian and a Finn known for doing Ironman triathlons will vie for the backing of Europe's centre-right parties on Thursday in the race to become European Commission president.
German EU lawmaker Manfred Weber and former Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb will make their pitches at a congress in Helsinki to become the European People's Party (EPP) top candidate for the European Parliament elections next May.
The EPP vote will make the victor the front-runner for the EU's most influential job, the head of the bloc's executive overseeing laws and trade deals.
But with the EPP losing influence in France and Spain, the rise of far-right parties across Europe, and with populists in its ranks in Hungary, Europe's biggest political force faces accusations that it represents out-of-date politics.
"This is not the old Europe that some accuse us of. The EPP is the most credible political group to lead Europe," EPP President Joseph Daul told reporters on Wednesday.
Stubb and Weber "represent the new generation," Daul said. Outgoing Commission President Jean-Claude, an EPP veteran of European politics over three decades, steps down next year.
Fifty-year old Stubb, a prolific Twitter user who cuts a youthful, sporty figure, is the clear underdog against Weber, 46, who leads the EPP group in the European Parliament and has the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Almost two-thirds of the EPP members' 734 votes could go to Weber, according to informal projections by party officials, counting Germany's outsized presence in the composition of the group, with more than 80 votes.
"This is a football match between Germany and Finland. I wish it was ice hockey," Stubb said, referring to his country's national sport.
Stubb could benefit from the secret nature of the ballot amid concerns that Weber's victory would entrench strong German influence in the European Union as Britain leaves the bloc next March, given that several Germans are already in top EU jobs.
The unassuming Weber, who speaks German and English, lacks the experience of Juncker or the charisma of polyglot Stubb, who speaks English, German, French, Swedish and Finnish.
But the strong social and networking skills of Stubb, who described himself as "running around like a crazy chicken" on Wednesday, have also got the better of him. He was judged too overwhelming for the modesty of Finnish politics and ditched by his own party in 2016 after a series of missteps.
The decision of who gets the Commission job also depends on the EU's national leaders.
Centrist French President Emmanuel Macron, who swept aside France's traditional political parties with his 2017 victory, rejects a 2013 European Parliament agreement that the parliamentary election winner should take the Commission job.
Under that deal, designed to bring the European Union closer to voters, whichever group comes top in the European assembly's election in May will have first chance to try to obtain parliamentary backing to be Commission president.
The EPP is expected to remain the largest grouping.
Such a contest is aimed at making the vote more relevant to citizens, who have turned out in ever smaller numbers to vote in European elections since the first were held in 1979.
For the first time, EPP candidates Weber and Stubb held a web-streamed debate on Wednesday evening. "Europe is divided today. Our job is to keep this continent together, otherwise we have no chance," Weber said.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott and Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Hugh Lawson)