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German snub for McCain as Merkel praises 'well-equipped' rival

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel has praised Barack Obama's political and physical strength as "Obamania" reached the highest levels of state on the eve of the Democratic presidential contender's feverishly anticipated visit to Berlin today.

In a remark that could be interpreted as casting aspersions on his 71-year-old Republican rival John McCain, Ms Merkel told reporters: "I would say that he is well-equipped – physically, mentally and politically."

Mr Obama, who is the favourite US presidential candidate of Germans by a wide margin according to opinion polls, has chosen Berlin as the setting for the centrepiece of his foreign tour. After talks with Ms Merkel in the morning, he will deliver a speech on transatlantic relations, in which he is expected to reach out to Europeans to repair the damage wrought by the Bush administration since the Iraq war.

The speech, at the Victory Column in Tiergarten park in the heart of the city, is expected to attract tens of thousands of people as curious Germans flock to see the man who has been described in Germany as the "black JFK". John F Kennedy was the Democratic president who delivered his impassioned "Ich bin ein Berliner speech" in 1963.

The Obama trip has proved diplomatically tricky for the German government because of his status as candidate, not president. Ms Merkel vetoed initial plans to hold the speech at the Brandenburg Gate, where Ronald Reagan urged the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down" the Berlin Wall. Mr Obama will instead stand at the Victory Column, a monument completed in 1873 to celebrate Prussian war victories.

Anticipating that she would discuss Afghanistan when Berlin is under pressure from the Bush administration to send in more German troops, Ms Merkel stressed to reporters: "I will make it clear that Germany is not shirking deeper involvement but also make very clear our limits in the same way as I do with the current president."

Ms Merkel said she would not be in Berlin for Mr Obama's speech, but added: "Maybe I'll turn on the television."

Meanwhile, a 40-year-old German was arrested at the Victory Column after driving his car through a security barricade and attempting to pour red paint around the 226ft column.