After weeks of lackluster national election campaign, West German voters go to the polls on Sunday to elect the party and chancellor that will lead them for the next four years.
While the small Free Democrat Party is likely to be a factor in the next government, the main challengers are the Social Democrats of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and the Christian Democrat-Christian Social Union alliance of Franz Josef Strauss, Bavaria's leading elected official.
Focusing on staunch supporters of the two main parties, the following profiles by Washington Post Bonn correspondent Bradley Graham offer an outline of the major election themes, the public views of the candidates and the motivations of voters leaning toward the respective candidates .
Konrad Esterl's Germany is on an ice-blue Bavarian lake rimmed by toothy mountain peaks and deep green woods. Families from the industrial middle and north of West Germany slip down here in winter to ski and in summer to hike, and Esterl studies them the way he studies the deer he frequently stalks.
In the quiet of his trophy-lined den, Esterl explained why he worries about the future of his country should the current coalition government be reelected and why he intends to vote for the opposition led by Franz Josef Strauss.
His basic fear is that West Germany is drifting to the left. He says he sees it in the media, in Bonn's strained relations with Washington and its cooperative ties with Moscow, in the government's increased spending for social benefits.
Esterl, 44, is uneasy about the foreign and social policies under 11 years of federal rule by the Social Democrat and Free Democrat parties. An employe of the state forestry administration he wants a return to what he regards as more traditional West German values, unquestioned allegiance to the United States, less welfare spending, more hard work, and reemphasis on family life.
Strauss and the Christian Democrat-Christian Social Union coalition he leads would pull West Germany back onto a more correct conservative course, says Esterl.
But beyond the issues, Esterl feels a special affection for Strauss. They are of the same kind -- Bavarian, brawny, bullish and exuberant -- a breed of German not always appreciated by those more solemn-minded voters in the north.
The vituperative attacks on Strauss that have marked much of the election campaign, portraying the Bavarian state premier as an impulsive ultraconservative, too dangerous to be chancellor, have upset Esterl. Strauss is not uncontrollable, as the critics charge, Esterl says. He would not get Germany embroiled in another war. He fought in one already and that was enough.
But Esterl says others do not understand this about Strauss, or do not want to. "He has a typical Bavarian temperament," Esterl said. "Too often Germans outside Bavaria don't accept that. They dislike him for his love of life."
Actually, Esterl has little against Schmidt. It's the party behind the chancellor that disturbs him -- particularly the leadership triumvirate of party chairman Willy Brandt, parliament member Herbert Wehner and general manager Egon Bahr -- seen as too closely aligned with the left, the Soviets and socialism.
This distinction between Schmidt and his party is a common one. The chancellor's own popularity in opinion polls has run about 15 points above the 43 percent or so polled by the Social Democratic Party.
"They are the danger," Esterl said of the Social Democratic bosses. "They have ducked low for the campaign, but afterwards, they will reappear. Schmidt cannot resist against the left."
Esterl said the Social Democrats' major foreign policy initiative, the development of cooperative ties with Moscow and Eastern Europe, has cost Bonn too much. "We gave away our shirts and trousers to them without getting anything. They still shoot at us when someone tries to escape," he said.
He also blamed the Social Democrats for putting strains on U.S.-West German relations. "In 1945, who helped us but the Americans?I don't like seeing the [Social Democrats] now treating our old friends not so nicely."
Esterl is troubled by Bonn's greater assertiveness in world affairs that Schmidt has championed. Although there is little question of West Germany's economic might, Esterl regards his country as still politically weak. He scoffed at Schmidt's recent declaration of a new "leadership role" for Bonn in international political affairs.
"Do you think we really have influence?" Esterl asked, suggesting the talk of a resurgent Germany may be more illusory than real. "We always know we are not a big power but a small sausage. Remember the saying, 'Shoemakers, stick to your trade.'"
Relaxing over a tall glass of Bavarian beer, Esterl conceded that he, his wife and two teen-age children are probably living better today than a decade ago when his party became the opposition. But he considers that the result of his own efforts rather than the government's management of the economy.
He professes surprise that Americans look with esteem on how the Germans have managed their economy. A dominant feature of modern German conservatism is the persistent fear that this success rests on a fragile base.
That is why the opposition's attacks on the Schmidt administration for accelerating the growth of the national debt have struck a responsive chord in Esterl and others. "They have mortgaged the future of our children," he said, noting that the debt now averages roughly $2,300 per person.
While this is still relatively favorable in comparison with other industrialized countries -- the figure for the United States is $3,900 -- Esterl recalls too well the drastic currency reforms made necessary by huge German deficits earlier this century. "No one can jump over the shadow of himself," he said.