BERLIN -- Six months ago it looked as if Helmut Kohl was history, an aging has-been whose quest for a fourth term as German chancellor seemed headed for rejection by a restless and disgruntled electorate.
Polls showed Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) 10 percentage points behind the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) led by Rudolf Scharping, a centrist newcomer nearly 20 years Kohl's junior. The German economy was dead in the water, unemployment was at a postwar high, and Bonn's ruling coalition appeared exhausted after 12 years in power.
That was then; this is now. The economy is reviving, Scharping's lead has evaporated, and Kohl is back. Nearly four months remain until the federal elections, but most political pundits believe the 64-year-old chancellor is well positioned to hang onto the office he has occupied since 1982.
A poll published Friday in the weekly newspaper Die Woche showed 43 percent of those surveyed favored the Christian Democrats compared to 35 percent for the Social Democrats. In terms of personal popularity, 42 percent favor Kohl versus 26 percent for Scharping -- a complete turnabout in sentiment since last winter. A poll released Friday by the ZDF television network also showed the Christian Democrats clearly ahead for the first time in more than three years.
The chancellor's reversal of fortunes reflects both good luck and good politics. Although the German economy still faces immense structural challenges, the current recovery from a prolonged recession has trimmed unemployment and generated new optimism in eastern as well as western Germany.
Kohl has shown resurgent popularity in the east, where voters appear increasingly willing to forgive his unfulfilled vows of "blooming landscapes" after German reunification in 1990. Growth in the east is forecast at nearly 8 percent this year, although unemployment remains at 15 percent and economic catastrophe has been forestalled largely by $100 billion in annual transfers from western Germany.
The extent to which the Christian Democrats have regained their equilibrium in the east will be measurable today when voters elect a state assembly in Saxony-Anhalt, the first of the former states of East Germany to go to the polls in this marathon election year. "This will be the first real look of how things are playing in the east," said a Kohl strategist in Bonn.
Kohl's iron-fisted control of his party has paid off handsomely, with the party faithful showing unity and discipline throughout the campaign. Events are well staged -- media coverage tends to show a relaxed, high-spirited chancellor moving confidently among his people.
Earlier this week, for example, Kohl appeared on the stump in the eastern city of Halle, a leftist stronghold where three years ago he was pelted with tomatoes and eggs. This time a friendly crowd of 8,000 filled the main square, cheering appreciatively when Kohl deftly deflected hecklers by commenting, "The caravan of Germany moves on, even if the dogs are barking."
Scharping's task is to stop the Christian Democratic bandwagon and regain his lost momentum. At times he has undercut himself with petulant carping, such as his angry complaint last month after the Free Democratic Party backed Kohl's candidate for the German presidency. Scharping subsequently apologized for the outburst.
True to their traditionally fractious ways, the Social Democrats have been beset by internal bickering in recent weeks. Gerhard Schroeder, premier of Lower Saxony and Scharping's chief rival, called for an open alliance between the Social Democrats and the Green Party while accusing Scharping of a misguided political strategy in stressing standard Christian Democratic themes, such as crime.
"We cannot compete with and certainly cannot beat the CDU with law-and-order slogans," Schroeder told Der Spiegel. "I cannot fathom why the SPD has made a classic CDU issue into the top issue of its campaign."
Scharping, 46, appeared to heal the rift, at least temporarily, with an uncharacteristically fiery speech at a party convention in Halle last week.
"At the end of the German economy's allegedly longest and strongest recovery period, we have the highest unemployment, the highest national deficit, the largest tax increase and a country that doubts its politicians," Scharping declared, adding: "Helmut must go."
The candidate also flatly refused to commit himself to an alliance with the Greens, evidently suspecting that their call for abolishing the German army and withdrawing Germany from NATO will scare off centrist voters. "We stand by the Atlantic partnership," Scharping insisted. "For us, NATO and the army are not up for negotiation."
Yet Scharping is still groping for a campaign theme that captures the imagination of German voters. The Social Democrats' spring slogan -- "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs" -- has been increasingly obviated by economic recovery. Even some party regulars wonder whether the new slogan -- "Change: the chance for Germany" -- will do the trick.
Special correspondent Ute Huebner contributed to this article.