West Germany's largest political party, out of power and in the doldrums of late, today took stock of itself and signaled a more [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] housing plan of attack on the left-of-center coalition. [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] government of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
Disheartened by a recent string of state election defeats, the Christian Democratic Union ended a two-day party convention here with a volley of sharp campaign rhetoric by its candidate for chancellor, Franz Josef Strauss, the leader of the Christian Social Union -- the Christian Democrats' Bavarian sister party. Strauss Blasted Schmidt for being too friendly with the Soviets and endangering West German Security and labeled the chancellor a puppet of the Kremlin.
The Christian Democratic convention called for a "realistic peace policy" and launched its election program by reaffirming the party's basically conservative tenets -- for private enterprise, individual freedom, and the United States.
But all the party pep talk and applause was not quite enough to raise what seemed to be a prevailing sinking feeling among delegates. Party leaders appeared more intent on stopping further political erosion than on gaining new campaign ground.
One senior party aide said privately that party planners were resigned to defeat in October's national elections and already focusing on post-election strategy.
The national contest matching Strauss against Schmidt has not lived up to early expectations of a grand clash between the West Germany's liberal and conservative camps.
Instead of issues, the 10-month-old campaign, has turned on personalities -- the steady-handed Schmidt versus the dynamic Strauss, or as one commentator put it, "immovable object meets irresistible force."
This was inevitable to some degree given the dominating personalities of the two candidates, who are widely regarded as West Germany's most outstanding politicians. But unforseen international events have also played a part.
Here as in the United States, the crisis in Afghanistan and Iran have eclipsed domestic campaign issues, elevating one concern above all others: Keeping West Germany out of conflict.
Schmidt's Social Democratic Party (SPD) pressed this theme to great advantage is last week's state election in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous West German state and historically a prime indicator of national political preferences.
While the Christian Democrats tried to talk about local matters -- energy, taxes, the state budget -- the Social Democrats framed the campaign as a choice between war (Strauss) and peace (Schmidt).
In the end, the CDU vote slipped four percentage points below the 1975 election results and the SPD won enough to govern the state without a coalition. It was a stunning victory for the SPD and the fourth defeat for the CDU in state elections since July, when it nominated Strauss.
In fact, Strauss and Schmidt differ very little in their analysis of the current international situation. Both men fear escalation of existing conflicts, both are keenly aware of the German public's anxiety toward war, and both see a need for West Germany to balance itself carefully between defense and detente policies.
The differences come in style and emphasis, with Strauss taking a more pro-American tack and sounding more emphatic about the need for a strong military.
In the public mind, however, the gulf between Strauss and Schmidt sometimes seems wide. This is largely because Strauss labors under the weight of lots of negative associations, tied to him over the course of a controversial life in German politics. His most damaging image -- and the one played upon lately by the Social Democrats -- is of a dangerously excitable ultraconservative.
But Strauss' old reputation as an enfant terrible still dogs the Christian Democrat-Christian Social campaign. About 12,000 people marched through this city last night in a generally peaceful demonstration against Strauss.
At the time of his nomination, Strauss, 64, was not the enthusiastic choice of the CDU. He was picked for want of a clear alternative among the younger ranks and to forestall him from turning his semiautonomous Christian Social Union into a national organization.
The CDU leadership sought today to squelch widespread speculation encouraged by the Social Democrats that Strauss would be replaced as chancellor candidate as a result of the recent election defeats. The Christian Democrats appear to have ruled out a change at this point in order to avoid another traumatic leadership battle less than five months before the election.
Never publicly stated but also presented in CDU thinking is that -- given the inevitability of defeat -- it is best to stay with Strauss, in a sense to sacrifice him and then be rid of him forever.
Masking their current distress, Christian Democratic leaders lined up solidly with Strauss this week. Strauss himself today sought to put to rest speculation of a shakeup. "The time for discussions about personalities is now over," he told delegates.
He urged party members to overcome their mood of defeat and turn this week's convention into a "Goetterdaemmerung" (a twilight of the gods), unleashing new energies for a tougher battle against Schmidt and the SPD. He said the CDU should "be a fighting party."
Indeed, from the tone and substance of Strauss' sharp attacks on Schmidt -- echoed by party leader Helmut Kohl -- it appeared the German campaign had moved into an even more taunting and vitriolic phase.
Although out of power now for 10 years, the CDU remains the largest party in West Germany's parliament. It won 48 percent of the national vote in 1976.
Moreover, surveys show that West Germans would prefer to see the return of a CDU government if it were not for one man: Schmidt.
Schmidt today enjoys the public respect and solid national standing once held by Konrad Adenauer, the first West German chancellor much revered by the Christian Democrats. Many West Germans who might otherwise be inclined to support the CDU are expected to vote for the SPD in order to keep Schmidt in office.
But the election could still take some unpredictable turns.
One wild card is the ecology party, called the Greens, which has managed to win election to two state parliaments during the past year. By drawing just a few percentage points of the national vote, the Greens could toss the election into a coalition jigsaw due to the complicated mathematics of the West German electoral system.
Concern about the Greens, however, was somewhat reduced by the party's lackluster showing in North Rhine-Westphalia.
The other big question mark is: Can the Free Democratic Party, which is the SPD's junior governing coalition partner, clear the necessary 5 percent necessary to stay in parliament?
The demise of the Free Democrats is constantly being predicted by those who see West Germany moving toward a two-party system. This talk took on greater seriousness when the Free Democrats scored less than 5 percent in North Rhine-Westphalia, leaving the SPD in complete control of the state government.