PASSAU, West Germany — The tall and rather ungainly candidate mounts the rostrum, shakes hands all around, and launches comfortably into his standard campaign speech.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl's rhetoric ignites no fire in his audiences, but he delivers the conservative message that they like to hear in this baroque Bavarian city on the Danube, near the Austrian border.
"I have come here to talk to you about the future of the Fatherland," he begins, and goes on to talk about the importance of family and the need for authority. He thanks the police and the army for securing peace and freedom.
Above all, in what has come to be a controversial theme, he calls for "a new patriotism."
Seen as a Liberal by Some
Earlier, Kohl had said that "terms such as patriotism and Fatherland and national symbols are once again being used as a means of identifying an individual's place in the world."
Campaigning here in Passau for Jan. 25 national elections, the 56-year-old chancellor received warm but not generous applause, not because of any disagreement with his message but because the right-wing burghers look on Kohl as something of a liberal. Their champion is the hawkish Bavarian leader, Franz Josef Strauss.
If Kohl seems folksy and old shoe compared to his sophisticated predecessor, Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt, it is because that is his political style, and it has propelled him and his Christian Democratic Union to the top of the opinion polls, leading the opposition Social Democrats by a wide margin.
The Social Democrats, as well as the radical Greens, have been angered by Kohl's patriotic theme. They see in it a disguised attempt to bury Germany's legacy from the Nazi years under Adolf Hitler.
Undisturbed by Critics
But Kohl shrugs off such criticism. He likes to emphasize that "Germans have a right to laugh."
This, too, is seen by critics as a thinly veiled statement that Germans can now forget about the past.
Kohl is staunchly supported by Strauss and his Christian Social Union, and they in turn give the government 10.6% of their voting strength in Parliament. For example, Strauss favors selling West German arms to South Africa and countries in the Middle East, and he suggests that treaties fixing East European frontiers, which, in effect, ceded German lands to Poland and the Soviet Union after World War II, are not necessarily binding.
Kohl began his campaign by warning voters not to become complacent, to be sure to vote. But recently he has exuded confidence as his party's standing in the polls has risen, reflecting West Germany's economic prosperity and rising standard of living.
Could Win Absolute Majority
Basically, his message involves the pocketbook. In effect, he tells his listeners: You've never had it so good. Carry on with Kohl.
Kohl and his Christian Democrats, together with the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, received 48.8% of the vote in the last election, in 1983, and this time they could win an absolute majority. If so, the Christian Democrats would no longer need their coalition partner, the liberal Free Democrats, who in 1983 received 6.9% of the vote.
But it is believed that Kohl would not relish this kind of victory. For if the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian allies get more than 50% of the vote, Strauss could be expected to insist that the Free Democrats be left out of the government and that he be made foreign minister.
Kohl has always been uneasy with his tart-tongued, quick-witted Bavarian partner, and he does not want him in the government, where Kohl's lumbering, bumbling style could be overshadowed by Strauss.
The Free Democrats believe that they bring a needed balance to the government, that Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, a Free Democrat, provides a liberal counterweight. Genscher has warned that hard-line Christian Democratic policies could impair relations with the Soviets and East Germans.
Free Democrats were upset when Kohl said not long ago in an interview with Newsweek magazine that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev could be likened to Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief. More recently, Kohl said that political prisoners in East Germany were being held in concentration camps, and this angered officials in East Berlin.
But Kohl's Communist-bashing remarks do not appear to have hurt him with the majority of West German voters, despite predictable criticism from the opposition Social Democrats and the Free Democrats. Actually, he has turned it all to his advantage by arguing that the Soviets and East Germans, in objecting to his remarks, are trying to influence the election.
Meanwhile, the Social Democratic candidate, Johannes Rau, has not seemed to strike many sparks with the voters. According to the polls, his party is losing votes to the Greens, who in one recent survey was found to have the support of almost 12% of the voters. Rau insists that he would not join a coalition government with the Greens, because of their insistence on pulling out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Nevertheless, Kohl warns the voters that a vote for the Socialists could mean a "Red-Green" coalition, and that argument appears to be effective with the electorate.