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West Germany tallies options as election nears

As the West German election campaign enters its final spurt, the ruling conservatives are fighting overconfidence, the challenging Social Democrats are fighting to integrate political dropouts, and the Liberals are fighting for survival.

For their part, the pacifist-environmentalist Greens are half-heartedly trying to grow from a regional to a federal party. But basically, they yearn to remain a protest movement free of parliamentary compromise.

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Various pre-election polls expect Christian Democrat Chancellor Helmut Kohl to be re-elected March 6, probably with the help of his Liberal coalition partners. But the conservatives' rival, the Social Democrats, have made a remarkable comeback since their approval rating fell below 30 percent in opinion polls last fall. They are back above 40 percent, only a few points behind the conservatives.

New chancellor candidate Hans-Jochen Vogel gets the major credit for the rise in the Social Democrats' standing. His tactic has been to move somewhat to the left of ex-chancellor Helmut Schmidt in policies, and to imply that he is even further left than he states publicly.

This tactic has worked handsomely in keeping the restive Young Socialists within the party. It has even persuaded many would-be Green voters to support a party that will have real parliamentary clout rather than wasting their ballots on the fledgling Greens, which have less than the 5 percent minimum for entry into the Bundestag.

Voters are enduring a campaign that has the usual amount of name-calling, few real differences in domestic policy, but distinct choices in foreign policy, specifically, the stance on nuclear missles based in Western Europe.

* Domestic policy: Chancellor Kohl has been campaigning on a platform of getting the stagnant economy moving again (by encouraging investment) and trimming social welfare costs.

Significantly, in intra-German policy, Kohl's five-month-old government has stressed dialogue with the East and continuity with its Social Democratic predecessors. Interior Minister Friedrich Zimmermann of the conser-vatives' right wing, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, has flirted in front of East Prussian and other exile audiences with the idea of reviving German claims to borders farther east. No one takes these probes seriously, however.

Domestically, the Social Democrats are accusing the conservatives of allowing rent hikes, curtailing student stipends, and welcoming an entrepreneurs' ''investment strike'' until after March 6 that could aid a conservative re-election. As an out-of-power party, the Social Democrats have the luxury of not specifying the social welfare cuts they themselves would make if they held the chancellery. Nonetheless, there is a broad consensus here that trims are necessary for budgetary health.

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On one remaining domestic issue - unemployment - Vogel's standard line is that while he would not be so ''crude'' as to attribute the continued rise in joblessness over the past five months to the new chancellor's policies, still, those policies don't seem to have checked unemployment. His own program of job creation - largely self-financing, without generating deficit or inflationary pressures, of course - would be better.

* Foreign policy: Kohl has been campaigning as the unquestioningly loyal ally of the United States. He says he is determined to station new NATO missiles here at the end of this year as scheduled, if there is no prior US-Soviet arms-control agreement.

Vogel, however, has made the scheduled December 1983 deployment of new NATO missiles his main issue. Here, too, he doesn't specify his own policy very clearly, beyond saying that as chancellor he would do everything in his power to make the stationing ''superfluous.''

His only description of what this might entail is persuading Moscow to reduce its numbers of SS-20s sufficiently so that NATO would not have to deploy its missiles. He has also referred approvingly - but not too approvingly - to the Soviet suggestion that it match Soviet SS-20s against the French and British missiles. (But only if equivalent American missiles would be barred in Europe, and if one three-warhead SS-20 would count as the equivalent of one one-warhead British or French missile.)

Vogel's most recent sally in the missiles question was to write an open letter to President Reagan asking him to come up with a compromise proposal at the Soviet-American arms-control talks. The letter has irritated the Americans, who see no equivalent Social Democratic pressure on Moscow. The Kohl government has been discreet, verging on inaudible, in its own private urging of flexibility on Washington. Vogel's letter seems to have been a popular move among voters, however.

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