"With you I want to open the gate to the 21st century," he told Christian Democrat diehards at their party conference in Bremen, possibly the last under Mr Kohl's stewardship. Lagging eight points behind the Social Democrats in the polls, a record fifth term for the Chancellor seems ever further out of reach.
Perhaps that is why Europe's most durable leader devoted so much of his two-hour speech to past exploits and achievements, and was so reluctant to provide a glimpse into the brave new world of the coming four years. "We want to win," he assured his followers. "We must fight for every single vote."
The spin-doctors had prepared journalists for a torrent of new policies, but in the end there was not so much as a trickle. The Chancellor spoke at length about the urgent need for reforming the tax system in order to create jobs. Failure to push such a package through the legislature was entirely the opposition's fault, he alluded.
He promised "sensible" policies for every item on his checklist, and tried to demonise his opponent, Gerhard Schroder as a Trojan horse of the loony left. The pretext was the fall-out from last month's elections in the eastern Land of Saxony-Anhalt, where the local Social Democrats are about to form a minority government in cahoots with the despised former- communists of the Party of Democratic Socialism.
This line of attack is beginning to emerge as one of the few election battle-fronts for September. Most other points of conflict, notably on job-creation, have already been usurped by Mr Schroder's campaign team.
It was left to Manfred Kanther, the hawkish Interior Minister, to bring up the other winning theme: foreigners. "We are not a multi-cultural society, and nor will we become one under the CDU," Mr Kanther vowed, admitting in passing that 7 million foreigners already lived in Germany.
There is no doubt that immigration is a CDU trump card, but it remains to be seen whether the "red socks" strategy will succeed in casting Mr Schroder as a crypto-communist. The challenger stands too far to the right to be vulnerable to such an insinuation, but his failure to scupper the embarrassing deal in Saxony-Anhalt does expose his tenuous grip on the party machinery.
After months of internal wrangling, Mr Kohl did at least dispel the notion that he was no longer master of his own house. When he finished his speech, a banner was rolled out begging "One more time, Helmut".
The party faithful applauded him for a full 10 minutes. Hildegard Muller, deputy chairwoman of the party, sported a badge with the words "Stay cool, keep Kohl". But outside another slogan is making the rounds: "Time for a change."