Mr Heitmann became a controversial figure because of his public statements, particularly on the role of women and on Germany's Nazi past. The German media had attacked him constantly and almost unanimously; Mr Kohl's coalition allies, the Free Democrats, publicly rejected him; even members of the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) criticised him. His public support was low and he had become a liability.
Mr Kohl yesterday expressed his 'respect and regret' at Mr Heitmann's decision, and was at pains to insist that Mr Heitmann's decision 'was taken by him alone'. He acknowledged, however, that he 'did not try to persuade him to change his mind'.
'I am withdrawing to allow the parties to seek a common candidate, and to safeguard the idea that the senior state job goes to an east German,' Mr Heitmann told a news conference.
The news of his withdrawal was officially said to have come 'like a thunderbolt' in Bonn. According to the authorised version, Mr Heitmann took the decision personally at the weekend, and told Mr Kohl on Tuesday. If there was any pressure from Bonn, it is unlikely to have come in the form of a direct phone call from Mr Kohl.
CDU officials in Bonn were at pains to insist that Mr Heitmann had jumped, and had not been pushed.
Mr Kohl complained yesterday of an 'intolerable campaign, in which Steffen Heitmann has been attacked and slandered in recent months'.
Mr Kohl, eager to improve his standing in the east, had been keen to have an east German candidate; but none of the most promising candidates from the east was a member of his CDU party.
Mr Heitmann himself suggested yesterday that his replacement could be Richard Schroder, a widely respected east German Social Democrat (SPD). The proposal for a consensus candidate was, however, immediately rejected by the SPD as a mischievous CDU ploy.
Only last week, the SPD overwhelmingly approved Johannes Rau, Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, as the official presidential candidate. Mr Schroder said yesterday that he was not willing to stand against Mr Rau. It would be politically almost impossible for the SPD to change horses at this late stage.
Mr Kohl categorically refused to back Mr Rau yesterday, noting that he had been his rival in the 1987 elections for chancellor. Mr Kohl announced that the three-party governing coalition would meet soon to try to find a common candidate.
The most likely candidate to emerge from the political wreckage left by Mr Heitmann's embarrassing candidacy and sudden departure is Roman Herzog, senior judge with the German constitutional court in Karlsruhe, whose name has been mentioned with increasing frequency in recent weeks, but who has officially stayed out of the fray until now. Mr Herzog could become the new candidate of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU. The Free Democrats would, however, need to be persuaded.
The presidential vote, next May, is by secret ballot among federal and regional MPs.
Throughout recent weeks, Mr Heitmann, 49, complained that he had been misunderstood, and said that he was quoted out of context.
His critics argued, however, that the clumsiness of his statements - he had appeared to suggest that women's most important role was to stay at home and look after the children, and he argued that Germany's Nazi legacy needed to be 'put in its proper place' - was, in itself, confirmation that he was an inappropriate figure to fill such a distinguished post, where good diplomacy is essential. Mr Heitmann was allotted a post as public-relations minder, whose main job was to limit the damage caused by his gaffes.
In recent weeks, as Mr Heitmann came under fire from all sides, it became a question not of if but when he would go. Mr Kohl seemed determined to keep him on - an apparent loyalty that did the CDU leader little good in his own party, where many believed that Mr Heitmann should have been ditched long since.
The current president, Richard von Weizsacker, has gained enormous respect during his period in office, and has come to be seen as the moral voice of the nation. But, under the terms of the constitution, he is not permitted to stand for a third term.
The former foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, was the most popular candidate to succeed him, but made it clear - to the dismay of his Free Democrat colleagues - that he did not want the post.Reuse content