* New LDP leader almost certain to be next PM
* Four candidates in close race
* Kishida and Kono seen as frontrunners
* Takaichi long-shot to be first female PM
By Antoni Slodkowski
TOKYO, Sept 29 (Reuters) - Japan's ruling party votes for a new leader on Wednesday who will almost certainly become the next prime minister ahead of a general election due in weeks and with the economy staggering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, his support in tatters ahead of the election, in a surprise move said he would step down after only a year as the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader at a scheduled Sept. 29 party vote.
The new party chief is expected to become the next prime minister as the LDP holds a majority in the parliament's powerful lower house, but the contest has created political uncertainty in Japan with four candidates.
Running for the top post https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/possible-candidates-become-japans-next-prime-minister-2021-09-08 are popular vaccine minister Taro Kono, 58, a U.S.-educated former defence and foreign minister seen as a maverick; ex-foreign minister Fumio Kishida, a consensus-builder saddled with a bland image; former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi, 60, an ultra-conservative; and Seiko Noda, 61, from the party's dwindling liberal wing.
Last year, LDP factions rallied around Suga after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe quit following his nearly eight-year tenure, citing ill-health. But Suga's ratings tanked over his handling of the pandemic, prompting him to announce his departure ahead of a general election that must be held by Nov. 28.
Contenders need to attract votes from grassroots LDP members and rookie lawmakers, who have emerged as a force https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/junior-japanese-lawmakers-emerge-force-wide-open-pm-race-2021-09-27 in the brief campaign preceding the vote and who are more likely to be swayed by popularity ratings, while also wooing LDP party bosses.
But rank-and-file members will have less say if no candidate wins a majority in the first round of voting and a second-round vote https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/japan-pm-suga-is-stepping-down-whats-next-japans-political-calendar-2021-09-07 is held between the top two contenders.
A win by Kono or Kishida is unlikely to trigger a huge shift in policies as Japan seeks to cope with an assertive China and revive an economy hit by the pandemic, but Kono's push for renewable energy https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/renewable-energy-firms-pin-hopes-taro-kono-winning-race-japan-pm-2021-09-24 and to remove bureaucratic obstacles to reform have made him appealing to investors and business chiefs.
Takaichi has been more outspoken on hotbutton issues such as acquiring the ability to strike enemy missile launchers. She has also made clear that as premier, she would visit the Yasukuni Shrine https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/japan-pm-contenders-support-taiwans-trade-pact-application-2021-09-24 for war dead, seen in Beijing and Seoul as a symbol of Japan's past militarism. Kono has said he would not.
Kono and Kishida have pointed to https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/key-economic-policy-stances-japans-next-pm-candidates-2021-09-10 the failure of Abe's signature "Abenomics" mix of expansionary fiscal and monetary policies and growth strategy to benefit households but offered few specifics as to how to fix the flaw, while Takaichi has modelled her "Sanaenomics" on her mentor Abe's plans.
The candidates have also clashed over cultural values, with Kono favouring legal changes to allow same-sex marriage https://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-politics-same-sex-marriage-idUSKBN2GO04N and separate surnames for married couples, both anathema to conservatives like Takaichi. (Reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Michael Perry)