As West Germany embarks on a two-month election campaign, the feverish hunt for votes is impelling some politicians here to shun the advice of their disarmament experts and call for more flexible approaches by the United States in talks with the Soviet Union to reduce nuclear missiles in Europe.
Until now, the center-right coalition of Chancellor Helmut Kohl has staunchly defended Washington's negotiating strategy based on the so-called "zero option"--that NATO NEWS ANALYSIS will cancel deployment of 572 Pershing II and cruise missiles if the Soviet Union dismantles its arsenal of 600-plus medium-range missiles aimed at West Europe.
But recent polls have revealed a surprising consensus among voters on the left and right questioning the sincerity of both superpowers as well as the wisdom of new nuclear deployments.
According to the political weekly Der Spiegel, a private study commissioned by the Kohl government showed that 55 percent of the country doubted that the United States and Soviets were negotiating seriously, and 61 percent felt that any installation of the missiles should be postponed even if the Geneva talks failed to achieve an agreement by autumn.
The findings of the government survey seemed to inspire a deft diplomatic pirouette last week by Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, whose small Free Democratic Party has slipped in public esteem and faces a difficult challenge in winning enough votes to meet the 5 percent requirement to hold seats in parliament.
At a press conference here, Genscher claimed that an "interim solution" to keep the number of missiles as low as possible on both sides should be worked out if the United States and Soviets fail to agree on complete elimination of medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe.
Genscher quickly added that this would only serve as an initial phase toward fulfillment of the "zero option" goal and thus remained fully consistent with alliance policy.
Nonetheless, that view conflicted with past comments by Kohl, who has stressed solidarity with the U.S. position that the Soviets must accept the "zero option" or face deployment of new nuclear missiles by NATO countries.
The nascent campaign, however, has turned the rigid U.S. position into a liability for German politicians, who have become acutely aware of mounting anxieties among the voters about the prospect of an East-West nuclear confrontation once the new missiles are introduced on their soil.
The opposition Social Democrats have gained ground in recent weeks under the party's new candidate for chancellor, Hans Jochen Vogel, who has emphasized the need for a more conciliatory exploration of Soviet arms control proposals instead of brusque rejection.
Vogel and other leading Social Democrats say that the West should seek a constructive response to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov's offer last month to cut Soviet medium-range missiles in Europe to the same level as the 162 missiles deployed by France and Britain.
While the NATO allies have rebuffed Andropov's proposal, the Social Democrats say the Soviet perspective merits serious consideration and that any final agreement must take into account the independent nuclear forces of France and Britain.
The Social Democrats hope to reap electoral dividends by showing the voters that their party is better suited to revive detente between East and West. Following his recent trip to Washington, Vogel intends to call on Andropov in Moscow this week.
The political repercussions of the missile debate may intensify as the campaign progresses, especially if the Soviets put further pressure on the West to reach a compromise when Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko arrives in Bonn to speak with top German officials on Jan. 17.
In the wake of a resounding Social Democratic victory in Hamburg local elections last month, even Kohl has taken pains to muffle his earlier hearty endorsement of the Reagan "zero option" proposal.
Genscher's discreet step away from Washington's line was known to have dismayed some Foreign and Defense Ministry specialists who believe that faithfully adhering to the "zero option" has induced the Soviets to make certain concessions in the arms talks, though not sufficient to satisfy U.S. negotiators.
Defense officials admit that they have been directed to examine more "creative approaches" that might be suggested during consultations with the American negotiating team.
One notion that has gained credence with Social Democrats' calls for acknowledging the link between the European missile talks and the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) aimed at cutting the U.S. and Soviet strategic nuclear arsenals.
The proposal would allow the Soviets to maintain missile superiority in Europe with a higher number of SS20 weapons in exchange for Soviet concessions in START.
That approach, say West German officials, would prove that the Europeans are willing to sacrifice parity with the Soviets in their territory to enhance U.S. security interests in the intercontinental missile balance.