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Germany's Kohl Vows A Second Comeback

CHANCELLOR Helmut Kohl's ruling Christian Democratic Union, which has dominated German politics for the last 12 years, has decided to cast itself as the underdog in this grueling election year.

The CDU's campaign strategy may be well-founded, as the party watches its popularity erode during the country's worst recession since World War II.

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Reflecting concern about a possible disaster in October's parliamentary elections, the fiery speeches of CDU leaders at the Feb. 21-23 convention in Hamburg tried to avoid calling attention to their party's past performance, and stressed that the CDU is Germany's best chance at managing future political change.

Turning power over to a ``red-green'' coalition of Social Democrats and Greens - the CDU's two main political opponents - only would make Germany's current situation worse, Chancellor Kohl argued. In the end, the 1,000 CDU delegates appeared to back an action plan that will tie the party's chances in October to Kohl's campaign ability.

``It's an absurd situation. The CDU is in a worse position than ever, and for this very reason it is trusting its chairman [Kohl] more than ever,'' political analyst Heribert Prantl wrote in the Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. ``The CDU is sticking with Kohl for better or for worse because it does not see any other option - nor does it probably have one.''

Recent public opinion polls consistently show the CDU trailing the opposition Social Democrats (SPD). An Emnid Institute poll released earlier this week said 36 percent of potential voters supported the CDU, while 39 percent favored the Social Democrats. A separate poll said Kohl's popularity rating stood at 26 percent, as opposed to 35 percent support for SPD leader Rudolf Scharping.

During his convention keynote speech, Kohl made it clear he was prepared to wage an all-out campaign. He told the delegates to fight ``against the prevailing wind,'' and not to lose faith.

``I'm speaking from experience. I've done it before,'' Kohl said, referring to the party's need to come from behind.

In 1990, Kohl won a third term as chancellor in a remarkable political comeback. In that election, however, Kohl was able to mobilize support by playing up his party's astute handling of German reunification. Now, the CDU's vulnerability on Germany's stubborn recession will make it harder to attract voters.

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Kohl's comeback tactics appear aimed primarily at centrist voters, who might otherwise be tempted to cast ballots for the SPD or the Greens. As an enticement for centrists, Kohl promoted a party program, entitled ``Freedom and Responsibility,'' that calls for stronger commitment to ecological issues. He also reaffirmed his strong support for European integration efforts.

But along with the carrots, Kohl is waving sticks at centrists, attacking the SPD's inexperience in handling international relations.

``The Social Democrats want to lead our country back to isolation,'' Kohl said. ``But isolation must never again become a concept in German history.''

In an attempt to keep the CDU's right wing in line, Kohl's campaign manager, Peter Hintze, told the convention that the party must return to its conservative roots and stress family values and civic duty. In addition, Kohl ruled out a possible CDU-SPD coalition government following the October parliamentary election, saying he will stick with his current partners, the Free Democrats and the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union.

The CDU will receive its first indication on the effectiveness of Kohl's campaign tactics on March 13, when voters will head for the polls in the north German state of Lower Saxony - the first of 19 local, state, and national votes to be held this year.

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