RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Lenovo may soon feel some very competitive heat in maintaining its status as the world’s third largest computer manufacturer.

The chairman and chief executive officer of No. 4 – Acer, which is based in Taiwan – is making it clear that the company wants to grow, especially in the U.S. And Lenovo is the target.

Any day now, Acer could announce an acquisition as part of that growth strategy. Various media sources, such as DigiTimes in Taiwan, are reporting that Acer could move to acquire U.S.-based Gateway.

If Acer buys Gateway, which still sells a bundle of computers at retail outlets despite its well-documented troubles in recent years, it could vault past Lenovo. Of course, Dell and HP remain 1-2 or 2-1, depending on the quarter, by a wide margin. But No. 3 does sound better than No. 4, and Acer is definitely targeting an increased market share in the U.S.

Coincidentally, so does Lenovo. CEO William Amelio has committed Lenovo to driving up U.S. sales this year. Lenovo’s recent splurge of marketing deals, promotions and its embrace of Microsoft on Wednesday as the default choice for Web and search tools loaded on PCs and laptops reflect Amelio’s drive. With Lenovo’s ThinkPads and other models available through Best Buy and Circuit City and the Lenovo brand receiving more global advertising through deals with soccer, NBA, Formula 1 racing and the upcoming Olympics in China, the Morrisville-based company certainly should create more buzz if not sales.

But in an interview with The Wall Street Journal this week, J.T. Wang, Acer’s top executive, indicated he is determined to leapfrog Lenovo.

“We are looking at some candidates which we want to pick up,” he told The Journal. He said a deal would be “meaningful” and that the company already has had “certain discussions” with a target.

DigiTimes, quoting industry sources, said that Acer “is actually targeting US-based Gateway for the merger.”

Acer is growing, but Wang isn’t satisfied, and he really wants more U.S. share DigiTimes said.

“If the company want to increase its US revenue proportion to more than 25%, it is necessary for the company to experience further consolidation, the sources noted,” DigiTimes added. “Taiwan PC players also commented that if Acer purchased Gateway, the company will increase its global share to 8%-9%, narrowing its gap with third-ranked vendor Lenovo.”

In recent company projections, DigiTimes added, “the company aims to beat Lenovo and become the third largest player next year.”

According to analyst firm Gartner, HP and Dell shared world market share leadership in 2006 at 15.9 percent each followed by Lenovo, Acer and Toshiba.

In the fourth quarter, HP led with 17.4 percent followed by Dell at 13.9 percent, Lenovo at 7 percent, Acer at 5.8 percent and Toshiba at 3.8 percent.

Given that 4Q PC shipments totaled more than 67 million, a fraction of a percent equals a lot of computers and a lot of cash.