Yasuo Fukuda, known as a dove toward Japan's neighbors, has gained ground in his bid to become prime minister this fall, although the hawkish Shinzo Abe remains the favorite, polls said yesterday.
Fukuda last week visited Washington and met top US officials including Vice President Dick Cheney. Media here viewed the trip to Japan's closest ally as preparation for the race to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
Some 21 percent of Japanese voters believed Fukuda, a former chief Cabinet secretary, was best suited to be prime minister, said a poll of 1,499 households across party lines by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun.
Support for Fukuda surged by seven percentage points from the business newspaper's last poll in March.
But he remained below Abe, the current chief Cabinet secretary, who enjoyed 33 percent backing in the latest poll. Other survey respondents picked other candidates to be prime minister or were undecided.
Koizumi, 64, plans to retire in September after more than five years in power. His Liberal Democratic Party will hold an internal election on his successor.
Despite his charismatic image and popularity at home, Koizumi has infuriated China and South Korea by visiting a shrine that honors war dead including war criminals.
Abe supports visits to the Yasukuni shrine, unlike Fukuda who has vowed to repair relations with China. At age 51, Abe is young for a Japanese politician, while Fukuda turns 70 in July.
Asked why they supported their favorite candidates, 49 percent of Fukuda supporters pointed to his stand on diplomacy and security issues, surpassing the 36 percent who cited his personality and image.
The trend was the reverse for Abe. Forty-nine percent of his backers cited his personality, compared with just 23 percent who listed foreign policy.