BERLIN -- As Germans from Leipzig to Hamburg vote in their first free elections since 1932, Helmut Kohl -- whose own conservative party considered replacing him just last year -- appears set to realize his avowed dream of becoming the first elected chancellor of the reunited Germany.
It was Mr. Kohl who, as West German chancellor, first recognized, then seized, prodded and drove the historic opportunity that thousands of refugees fleeing the former East Germany presented him with last year.
Now, he has left his main rival, a sassy Social Democrat named Oskar Lafontaine, in the political dust.
The most recent poll by the Infas polling institute shows Mr. Kohl's Christian Democratic Union, along with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, picking up 45 percent of today's vote. The Free Democrats, Mr. Kohl's coalition partner, are expected to win 9.5 percent, giving the team a 54 percent majority.
Mr. Lafontaine's party is expected to come in with 34 percent.
In large measure, Mr. Lafontaine's surprisingly dismal showing may be due not just to Mr. Kohl's success in bringing about German unity and restoring his country's sovereignty before Election Day, but also to Mr. Lafontaine's apparent preference for being right over being politically wise.
The twice-divorced, dapper young politician appears at campaign rallies sporting dark shirts and thin leather ties, in sharp contrast to the bulky and staid Mr. Kohl. In a predominantly conservative country, Mr. Lafontaine's spicy style may win him the amusing interest of voters, but the unexciting Mr. Kohl inspires a sense of confidence and reliability at a time of sharp change in Germany.
"Kohl gives out such solid vibrations," said Sybille Altendorf, 44, a housewife, who went to hear both candidates speak in the past two weeks.
Mr. Lafontaine also misjudged the sentiment among voters in placing himself squarely against rapid reunifiSee GERMANY, 20A, Col. 4GERMANY, from 15Acation, at a time when the euphoria over the opening of the long-closed border was still high. Even after that euphoria turned into grudging acceptance, Mr. Lafontaine won no points for his reluctance to celebrate the coming together of East and West Germany.
Instead, he consistently criticized Mr. Kohl for his handling of German unity, complaining of hidden, higher costs than the government initially acknowledged and predicting -- against the chancellor's assurances -- that Mr. Kohl would raise taxes after the election to finance unification.
It is not that anyone doubts that Mr. Kohl will increase taxes, or that he could not possibly say so just before an election. "Sure we'll have to pay something. Sure it'll cost," said Ilse Schaeffer, 65, who stood on a park bench in Stuttgart Thursday waving a CDU flag to welcome Mr. Kohl. "We want to pay for this."
Mr. Lafontaine has proved to be right about the high cost of unification, but it has somehow become beside the point among voters.
"What Kohl says gives people more courage," said Dieter Altendorf, 47, Sybille's husband. "Lafontaine just brings up the hardship. He makes people feel bad."
Former East Germans will also be slow to forgive Mr. Lafontaine for his attempts to block the currency union between the two countries July 1. His party is expected to get just 23 percent support among voters in eastern Germany.
The 47-year-old Social Democrat does not appear to be winning much of a sympathy vote from the assassination attempt in April when a mentally deranged woman dressed in white slipped a kitchen knife out of a bouquet of flowers to slit his throat.
So slim are Mr. Lafontaine's chances, and so divided is his party, that former Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt caused something of a scandal in party circles when a Dutch newspaper recently quoted him as saying Mr. Lafontaine would not win and did not deserve to win.
Mr. Schmidt did not deny having made the statement, but he contended that its use was "unauthorized." He apparently made the remarks to the journalist after their formal interview had ended.
German unity may not be the issue of the future, but it has surely been decisive in rescuing Mr. Kohl from the political doldrums.
A man who has built his career until now on the gritty work of local politics, Mr. Kohl is now latching on to his role as statesman in this year's campaign. During his campaign pitch, he speaks little about housing, pensions or education -- the stuff of Mr. Lafontaine's speeches.
Instead, he speaks about Germany's role in developing the Third World, about the need to strengthen relations and overcome Germany's historical enmity with Poland, the way it has with France.
He acknowledges there will be sacrifices ahead as western Germany strives to bring the eastern sector up to its standard of living. But the 60-year-old Mr. Kohl turns hardship to virtue by reminding audiences of Germany's postwar devastation.
"Did we already forget how to find new solutions?" he asks.
In forging ahead with German unity, Mr. Kohl also launched himself into the international spotlight: Here he was pressing the Allies to hold firm to their postwar rhetoric pledging German reunification; there he was in Stavropol wresting German sovereignty from Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Two weeks ago, all Europe formally sealed German reunification at the Paris summit of the 34-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
"Normally, politicians try to create such situations that make them look like international leaders," said Hans-Ulrich Kemtski, a veteran political reporter at the Suddeutsche Zeitung. "This i fantastic for Kohl."
Though Mr. Kohl prides himself on being a man of action rather than abstraction, it is, finally, a vision of Germany that he is selling voters.
The Germany he portrays is not mired in the petty questions of daily life and whether taxes will increase.
It is a Germany that has shed the limits on its sovereignty with the blessings of those who once controlled it, and that -- like the chancellor -- is leaving behind old uncertainties to become a major player on the European, and world, stage.