The arena lights dim and the crowd begins to chant, "Helmut, Helmut," as a phalanx of security men and sycophants jostles through clogged aisles, leading a burly, bespectacled man in a triumphant march to the podium.

Night after night, at campaign rallies scattered across West Germany, Chancellor Helmut Kohl repeats the routine. Devoid of charisma, he will speak for 90 minutes on the need to restore traditional values, to work harder and to save more money. There will be polite applause, dispassionate cheers and a fast exit.

"My greatest asset is that people would buy a used car from me without checking it over," he is fond of saying. "I am proud of this trust. That may sound stale and unprogressive, but I don't care one bit."

In contrast to the statesman's role assumed by predecessors Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt, Kohl is running hard and is trying to prove that a stolid character, strong party organization and knack for appearing to be all things to all people may supersede a reputation for mediocrity and confirm him as chancellor in March 6 elections.

Kohl, who toiled for more than three decades as a Christian Democratic politician before becoming, at 52, the youngest leader of his country, has recovered from a shaky campaign start to solidify his lead in the polls over his Social Democratic rival, Hans-Jochen Vogel. In the early days of the campaign, Kohl found that appeals for austerity during an economic recession met a cold reception among compatriots so accustomed to comfort and prosperity.

His firm insistence on deploying new nuclear missiles later this year, should arms control talks fail, frightened those voters seeking assurances that the weapons would be kept out of their country.

In recent weeks, as he has sought to win new support by venturing into such Social Democratic strongholds as this northern port city, Kohl has larded his speeches and interviews with phrases that cater to new constituencies.

He no longer emphasizes a security threat requiring new missiles but tells audiences he wants "peace with fewer and fewer weapons." Campaign slogans exhort West Germans to "vote for the coming boom" by casting their ballot for a Christian Democratic team that will invigorate the economy.

On Wednesday, Kohl made a pitch for the ecological vote, which was previously conceded to the Social Democrats or the upstart Greens movement that also has stressed antinuclear issues, by unveiling new antipollution measures to meet the threat of acid rain now spoiling forests and rivers.

"The German woods are in danger," Kohl declared at a press conference. "It is five minutes to midnight in the fight to stop acid rain and save the woods."

Kohl's skillful shading on the issues, which some critics denounce as cynical opportunism, testifies to his talent for sensing shifts in the public mood and adjusting his party's platform accordingly.

"Previous chancellors from our party, such as Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard, were established figures who later became party chairmen," explains Volker Ruehe, deputy parliamentary leader of the Christian Democrats. "Kohl is the first man who rose through the ranks as a politician actually produced by the party."

Since assuming the party leadership a decade ago, Kohl has more than doubled membership, now close to a million, and built up an impressive party network around the country that is now prepared for a long stint in government after 13 years in opposition.

Kohl's dull demeanor and lack of expertise in finance and foreign affairs--he likes to call his approach "generalist"--is considered a boon to party harmony by some Christian Democrats.

"The days when a great leader, like Adenauer, could rule by stature and force of personality are gone," says the Christian Democratic spokesman, Wolter von Tiesenhausen. "Kohl is a pragmatic consensus seeker, a man we like to say has the smell of the stable about him."

As he crisscrosses the country in search of new votes that would increase the 3 to 5 percent lead that the polls indicate his party retains over the Social Democrats, Kohl constantly evokes the threat of a "red-Green alliance" that he says would threaten West Germany's prosperity and stability.

He warns that if the Social Democrats are returned to power, they will link up with the Greens--whose aim, he says, is "to tear down our industry, create massive unemployment and lead us on the path to neutralism."

Touting his party's theme, "Upwards in Germany," Kohl insists that only the Christian Democrats can bring sound economic management to government "to repair the damage caused by 13 years of Social Democratic blunders" and "restore private initiative, reduce budget deficits and provide incentives for investments that will yield greater well-being for our country."

Gathering his breath for the punch line that plays well to rural audiences, he then says, "You have to feed the cow before you can milk it."

Another favorite theme cited by Kohl, in what he calls the country's "most fateful election campaign," is that the vote will determine whether West Germany pursues a pro-western, Atlanticist course or shifts toward a "neutralist, equidistant approach" between the superpowers that he says is the desire of the Social Democrats.

"Our place is on the side of our friends in the West," he says emphatically. "We must not become wanderers between two worlds."

Kohl hopes to retain the broad coalition between his party and the smaller Free Democratic Party, which is still struggling to secure more than the 5 percent of total votes needed to hold seats in the parliament.

Kohl says such a center-right alliance is necessary to consolidate power through the rest of the decade. It would also enable Kohl to keep Franz Josef Strauss, the ambitious leader of the Christian Democrats' sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, from gaining too much influence in a future cabinet.

Strauss has complained frequently that Kohl has missed the chance to win an absolute majority by being too soft on the Free Democrats and not criticizing them for collaborating with the Social Democrats in "ruining the country's finances" during their 13-year partnership in power.