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Rau's political star rises in W. Germany as result of state vote

``Johannes Rau is the kind of person who can chug a beer with miners in the afternoon, and they'll say, `He's a regular guy' -- then go talk to the Protestant Academy in the evening and move everyone to tears quoting the Bible,'' commented a colleague. After May 12, the spectacularly reelected North Rhine-Westphalia Premier Rau is also the kind of man who is a shoo-in as the Social Democrats' candidate for chancellor in the 1987 federal election. That's not official, of course, and Rau denies any aspirations, but it's what the backroom Social Democrats are saying. It's also what a lot of Ruhr voters seemed to be casting their ballots for. ``Rau is running against Chancellor Kohl,'' noted the colleague, ``not against [Bernhard] Worms'' (the conservative candidate for state premier).

Rau's campaign -- in a leaf borrowed explicitly from the successful Reagan campaign last year -- exuded a generalized optimism rather than stooping to the nitty-gritty of issues. His most successful poster showed theRAU10RAU1 once confirmed bachelor with his young wife, with their toddler perched on Rau's shoulder -- and it avoided partisanship so thoroughly that it never mentioned Rau is a Social Democrat. The approach worked better than its designers dared hope, and gave Rau the most votes any premier has gotten in the state since World War II.

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Although Rau is from the center-right of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), he won his absolute majority Sunday by garnering such a broad spectrum of votes that he kept the Greens on the left under the 5 percent minimum needed to get into the Landtag. This left the combined Christian Democrats (36.5 percent for 88 legislative seats) and Free Democrats (6 percent for 14 seats) under the SPD's 52.1 percent and 227 seats.

It also left the Free Democratic Party (FDP) jubilant, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) gloomy, and the Greens discouraged. After slipping below 5 percent in the state election five years ago in the first wave of enthusiasm for the pro-ecology and counterculture Greens, the Free Democrats have bounced back from near-extinction. The FDP is selling itself these days primarily as a future- and technology-oriented ``Yuppie'' party, and it is convinced the strategy is working.

The CDU is convinced of this too, to its relief and rue. The relief arises from the assurance that the FDP won't vanish into oblivion in the 1987 federal election and should therefore guarantee the reelection of the present center-right coalition in Bonn. The rue arises from the clear indication that the FDP's upsurge has been brought about by a shift of voters away from the Christian Democrats. The CDU's meager 36.5 percent -- it had set a target of 40 percent -- leaves it far inferior to the Social Democrats in West Germany's most populous state, with a third of the nation's electorate.

The disappointment of the Greens, who have never made it into the North Rhine-Westphalia Landtag, is heightened by the fact that this is their second failure in two months. This one hurts even more than their loss in the Saarland in March: Their potential votes in the Saar went to glamorous leftist Social Democrat Oskar Lafontaine; their potential votes in North Rhine-Westphalia went to a middle-of-the-road Social Democrat who made little attempt to cater to environmental interests.

The rejection of the Greens may be quite local; the North Rhine-Westphalia Greens offended many voters during the campaign by almost endorsing the legalization of sex with children. But German commentators are now viewing the new downswing after their recent meteoric rise as the beginning of the Greens' demise.

Whatever the truth of this prognostication, the North Rhine-Westphalia vote has certainly strengthened the beleagured center wing of the SPD. Rau has shown that the SPD can outmaneuver the Greens without stealing their clothes a la Lafontaine. In this trade union heartland he has also won back much more than the 3 percent of traditional SPD voters who defected to the CDU in the last federal election, out of fear that leftists were usurping the SPD leadership.

The Social Democrats have gotten the voters' message as far as industrial and unemployment issues are concerned. They are trying to climb out of the anti-technology, anti-modernization hole they dug themselves into at the height of the anti-missile youth movement of the early 1980s. The recent SPD convention in Dortmund had as its motto, ``Ecological modernization of the economy'' -- but the new emphasis is clearly on the modernization rather than the ecology.

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Rau's victory is expected to strengthen the SPD swing back toward the center in economic policy, but not toward the center in security policy. Rau has represented no particular position on the missile issue, and party chief Willy Brandt is described as being determined to preserve the party's opposition to the NATO missile deployment.

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