Two large "Re-elect Helmut Kohl" billboards posted outside an apartment building in East Berlin lasted less than an hour in a neighborhood made up mainly of current and former Communist Party members.

One billboard was knocked over, and the other was unceremoniously defaced. The rotund, fatherly Kohl was soon sprouting large horns, blackened eyes and a Hitleresque mustache under his nose. Scribbled under his visage were the words: "Thank you for 14 million unemployed" in place of his party's slogan, "World class for Germany."It's the homestretch before Germany's national elections, which will take place the last weekend of September. And few of Kohl's billboards and placards have been spared the handiwork of vandals and graffiti artists.

This doesn't mean that Kohl can be counted out in his bid for a fifth term. It simply means the German reaction to political campaigning is slightly different than that of the United States. Just ask the mayoral candidate of the Berlin suburb of Potsdam. Every picture of him is marred with a big red ball covering his nose.

In every other regard, though, German elections have taken on a distinctly American look.

Leading Kohl in the polls is an upstart liberal named Gerhard Schroeder, an admitted political animal whose campaign is borrowing heavily from the tactics used by two other challengers - Britain's Tony Blair and our own President Bill Clinton. "A vote for me is a vote for change," says Schroeder, and it's hitting home with millions of Germans.

Michael Naumann, tapped to be Schroeder's minister of culture, told our associate Kathryn Wallace that the challenger's campaign closely studied Clinton's and Blair's techniques and tapped their advisers for campaign strategies.

Not that the Schroeder candidacy could pass muster in the United States. While Clinton's presidency is gravely imperiled by intern troubles, Schroeder is currently on his fourth marriage, the latest one to a reporter he met while married to wife No. 3.

Nevertheless, the Schroeder campaign has mastered the American art of media manipulation. Every day brings a new announcement, keeping the candidate's name in the headlines.

Andre Shahood, a Kohl spokesman, seems to view Schroeder in much the same way Clinton's critics view the president: as a German version of "slick Willie."

Just like Americans did with Clinton, some Germans are starting to bemoan Schroeder's lack of substance; they want to know what's beneath the slick packaging. Schroeder has even begun to adopt some Clinton mannerisms - the twinkling grin, the scorched-earth campaign tactics and the "let's roll up our sleeves" energy that helped the former Arkansas governor beat George Bush in 1992.

The net result: Germans may not fully trust Schroeder, but many find him quite charming. Whether that charm will do anything to alleviate the plight of Germany's ailing economy is anybody's guess.