Schmidt prepares to meet his match

This time, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt faces the opposition candidate he craves. In the election of 1976, the Christian Democrats sent Helmut Kohl up against Social Democrat Schmidt.

Schmidt pretended to be incensed.

"What must they think of me, to put up such a weakling," he was reputed to have said.

But Kohl came within an ace, more specifically, within about 300,000 votes in a poll of 38 million, of defeating Schmidt.

Nevertheless, Schmidt insisted his "wish candidate" was Franz Josef Strauss, perhaps the most controversial man in German politics.

For one thing, said Schmidt, Strauss actually held power in the Christian Democratic Union. He could veto any Kohl policy. A Strauss candidacy would have been "more honest."

For another, Schmidt considered Strauss the only opposition frontbencher his intellectual equal. A victory over Strauss would be more significant, infinitely sweeter, than the defeat of Kohl.

For the election this fall, the opposition has done Schmidt the favor of running Strauss.

For each man, it probably is the last race.

Each has been politically active since World War II ended with the defeat of Naziism 35 years ago.

Schmidt is the youngest, now 62. From time to time, usually when exasperated with his Social Democratic Party's left wing, he flirts with the idea of abandoning ship. But that's an empty threat. He remains in good health, the job doesn't yet bore him, and he certainly will not give up the chance to beat Strauss.

Strauss is showing some signs of wear and tear. In the federal parliament from its first session in 1949, he resigned in November 1978 to become minister president of Bavaria. Briefly, it looked as if Strauss might just stay in that position, enjoying its princely perks, until he retired from politics.

Until then, Strauss had been "often a bridesmaid, never a bride." As leader of the Bavarian wing of the Christian Democratic Union, he had the strength to break any other party leader, but never quite enough to make himself king.

In the summer of 1979, however, after his lieutenants had spent two years undermining Kohl, Strauss finally won the candidacy.

But having won it, he suddenly sagged. Some close to him said he had wearied of the fray, didn't really want to fight the election. But as it was now or never, he pulled himself together and has started to campaign, although less vigorously and abrasively than his followers hoped and expected.

Strauss himself says that he and Kohl simply have reversed roles -- as candidate, he has to adopt a statesmanlike pose, leaving the demagogery to Kohl, the party's parliamentary leader.

Six years ago, Strauss told a party meeting that the Christian Democrats probably could come to power only if the state's financial condition approached bankruptcy. Then the party could ride in on the back of "a public shock wave."

But the external shocks of Iran and Afghanistan appear to have worked to the government's advantage. Public opinion polls since show Schmidt improving his narrow lead over Strauss, although one-fourth of those questioned were "don't knows" and "won't says."

Schmidt claims that only his Social Democrats and their tiny coalition partners, the liberal Free Democrats, enjoy international confidence, can guarantee continued relaxation of tension in Europe and a liberal hand in the application of the law.

Strauss counters that Schmidt is a prisoner of his own party's left wing, which holds open the door to extremism, forcing the chancellor to allow the left to subvert public institutions in West Germany while making unnecessary concessions to the Soviet Union and Communist-ruled East Germany.

Those are strong arguments among a people living in the shadow of the Soviet armed forces.

On the other hand, many fear Strauss as chancellor would simply provoke those forces.

On Oct. 5, all West Germans 18 and older will express their preference.

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