CHEMNITZ, GERMANY -- The flashing blue lights of the motorcade of Mercedes-Benzes played against rooftop neon displays advertising collapsed Communist industries. The cars stopped, the crowd fell silent, then roared in anticipation. The chancellor of German unity was back in town.
Helmut Kohl stepped out, a voluminous trench coat wrapped around his 260-pound girth, a toothy grin on his ruddy face. He was back among the people who would always remember him as the man who brought them out of 40 years in the Stalinist quagmire.
Here in what was East Germany, Kohl, who is cruising toward his near-certain reelection on Sunday, can do something he has almost never experienced in his long march to the pinnacle of German politics. He can bring tears to people's eyes.
Karin Zigmann's eyes began to well up even before the oom-pah band struck up the chancellor's fanfare. "In one year, he achieved more than all the chancellors before him," said Zigmann, who arrived two hours early to get a good view of Kohl. "We've put so much hope in him. What else do we have, really?"
Kohl is no orator. He seems awkward in front of audiences. He fidgets, he wipes his mouth and refolds his handkerchief.
But here, among people who are losing their jobs but have regained their dignity, he has discovered that he offers something more valuable than any other commodity -- hope.
"It is a joy to put this country on its legs again," Kohl told the crowd of 5,000. "We in the West had the help of the Americans while you had Stalinism. If the people of Chemnitz had had the same opportunities we had, then Chemnitz would look like the cities of the West today.
"We who were lucky enough to be born in the West, like me, we sometimes forget what freedom means. You, you have reminded us what freedom really means, that it is the presupposition for everything in life."
Nods of gratitude swept through the crowd. Up front, women dabbed their eyes with tissues and men sheepishly wiped their sleeves across their faces. "Hel-mut, Hel-mut," they chanted.
With less than a week remaining before the first free all-German election since 1932, such rallies are less common than might be expected. This has been a decidedly quiet campaign, in part because of Kohl's bulging lead in the opinion polls, the latest of which shows Kohl's conservative coalition winning 54 percent of the vote to the Social Democrats' 33 percent, according to the Allensbach Institute.
After a historic year, Germans seem tired of politics, especially in the east, where citizens already have voted three times since March. Kohl has spent much of the final pre-election weeks in triumphant meetings with President Bush, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and other world leaders, basking in the advantage of incumbency, steering clear of the tumult of the hustings.
Kohl, 60, the son of a bureaucrat, has been chancellor since 1982. For years, he was the quiet member of the conservative triumvirate that dominated the politics of the Western alliance, a solid but colorless partner of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, a leader who reflected the muted independence of his divided nation. Kohl, like West Germany, was business-like, pragmatic, yet somehow uneasy about his role, uncomfortable with anything grand or emotional, anything that might stir memories of his country's dark past.
The fall of the Berlin Wall changed all that. At first, Kohl suffered the kind of embarrassing moment that had long made him the butt of satirists who portrayed him as a mumbling, bumbling pol. On the joyous first night after the opening of the wall, Kohl spoke to a boisterous crowd of Berliners who cheered their Social Democratic mayor and -- on national TV -- pelted the chancellor with a barrage of boos.
But two weeks later, the chancellor launched 10 months of political mastery by announcing a 10-point plan for German unity, a dream that even then seemed barely conceivable. Along the way, Kohl stumbled, failing to keep his allies informed of some steps and jeopardizing international support by catering to hard-line right-wingers when he refused to issue a clear guarantee of the German-Polish border.
But overall, Kohl's handling of the road to reunification was a rare political balancing act in which the United States stood firmly by the chancellor, the other Western allies grudgingly came along, and in a proud coup last summer, Kohl won over Gorbachev with an attractive package of face-saving measures and valuable gifts for the Soviet president who had lost the jewel of the Soviet empire, East Germany.
His international victories aside, Kohl's premier political achievement this year was to claim unification for himself. The chancellor has so neutralized the opposition Social Democrats that even the party's last two chancellors, Helmut Schmidt and Willy Brandt, have acknowledged that challenger Oskar Lafontaine is headed for a major defeat.
The difference between the campaign messages of Kohl's Christian Democrats and the opposition is as stark as that between the two Germanys. Kohl says flatly that taxes will not increase to pull eastern Germany out of the gully left by four decades of Communist strip-mining of the environment, economy and spirit of East Germany. Kohl says a combination of state borrowing and budget cuts will provide enough money. Lafontaine says Kohl is deceiving voters, that a tax increase is inevitable, that eastern Germans face a long, tough climb to the Western lifestyle they crave.
Kohl says Western investors will re-create eastern Germany in the image of the West, broadening the boom that western Germans have come to consider to be permanent. But Lafontaine says private investors have no desire to pour money into the economic wasteland of the east.
Kohl wants the new Germany to take on a bigger role in world affairs, starting with a constitutional change that would allow German troops to join an international force in the Persian Gulf. Lafontaine wants the new Germany to rise above national identity and immerse itself in Europe as a protection against the excesses committed throughout this century in the name of Germany.
But despite their deep political differences, the real distinction between the two candidates is one of emotion. For Kohl, this year has been a chance to shift his image. He was the political operator who is great at eliminating competition inside his party but something of a "Dummkopf" in domestic and foreign policy. Now he is trying to position himself as the sentinel of optimism, the first postwar German politician to feel comfortable using purely emotional campaign appeals.
"I really don't understand why, despite everything, so many people are running around with gloomy faces," Kohl told an interviewer last weekend. "Of course we have problems. But when have we Germans ever had such prospects for the future?"
"Yes to Germany, yes to the future," says the Christian Democratic slogan that accompanies Kohl everywhere.
Spiced with frequent references to the German fatherland, the chancellor's stock speech is largely a pep talk, a promise that eastern Germany will soon be thriving, a celebration that "after the Nazi time, war, total destruction, the Soviet occupation and 40 years of Communist East Germany, we are together, free citizens in a free country."
There is almost no discussion of policies or programs, barely a mention of the massive unemployment now sweeping the east. Instead, Kohl congratulates Germans on their peaceful revolution and urges them to join his dream of a united Europe and a Germany that "wants to be good neighbors after so many years of terrible history."
Kohl's rallies end with a song, a Hollywood-produced anthem commissioned by the Christian Democrats. Sung in English and created to raise goosebumps in a crowd of listeners, "Touch the Future" is a rousing number. "Feel the power, touch the future, reach the heart . . . let the future turn to gold," run the lyrics.
Opposition politicians ridicule the song and privately compare it to the chilling rendition of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" by Hitler Youth members in the film, "Cabaret." But the song does what it is supposed to.
Still, the Kohl who will be recorded in history texts alongside Bismarck as a unifier of this young nation of centuries-old regions, each with its distinct character and dialect, remains a mostly unloved leader, particularly in the west and even among many Germans who will vote for him.
Much of Kohl's support is dedicated not to the man but to his party, which the public associates with German economic prowess.
"We are terribly embarrassed by Kohl," said Christian Schutz, a Duesseldorf store manager. "He's the kind of person everyone feels smarter than. But he has accomplished something extremely important for Germany. He has given us, for the first time, that very American concept of the government as an administration instead of as a moral leader. And that is very important progress for the Germans."
So Schutz will vote for Kohl. And so will many voters in eastern Germany who do feel an emotional tie to this chancellor.
"Some people say he was just lucky, he happened to be chancellor when the wall came down," said Bernd Moritz, a farmer in a village near here. "It's not just luck. He was smart enough to know that unification had to come very fast or this country would have been bled out. He is really our chancellor."