FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) _ The former East German Communists have set an ambitious goal for the Sept. 27 parliamentary election: Gaining votes in hostile western Germany, especially from young people bored with mainstream politics.

Snappy street posters, apologies for its Stalinist past and a rally in this German banking center are part of an election campaign designed to dump the party's image of a club for aging ex-Communist functionaries and easterners who feel like second-class citizens in united Germany.

In the last election in 1994, the former Communists, known as the Party of Democratic Socialism, won about 20 percent of the vote in eastern Germany. In the west, it got 0.9 percent.

Now, eight years after East Germany ceased to exist, the PDS realizes it must modernize its image. ``Western votes are crucial to our continued existence,'' says PDS campaign manager Andre Brie.

After years of being treated as a pariah, the ex-Communists say an improved showing in the upcoming election could force other parties to take it more seriously.

Front runner Gerhard Schroeder, a business-minded board member of Volkswagen, has moved his left-leaning Social Democrats toward the political center in his campaign, possibly making the PDS more attractive to traditional leftist voters.

The party also has committed itself to a democratic system and toned-down rhetoric against capitalistic practices, although it still advocates government-run businesses.

With membership down by half since 1990 to less than 100,000, often because of deaths, it badly needs new, young blood.

Headlining the party's campaign is Gregor Gysi, a witty and pugnacious former East Berlin attorney who led the renamed Communists in 1990 for a few months between the fall of the Berlin Wall and German unification.

Now the party's leader in parliament, he is battling allegations by fellow lawmakers that he was a spy for the Stasi, East Germany's dreaded secret police.

So far, the allegation has not alienated supporters, including 130 German intellectuals who signed an ad backing Gysi in major newspapers this week. One of the signers was film director Volker Schloendorff, maker of the 1979 Oscar-winning film ``The Tin Drum.''

At a rally Tuesday night a few subway stops from the skyscrapers of Frankfurt's banking district, Gysi outlined his strategy to an appreciative crowd of nearly 1,000.

Much of his speech was universal left-wing rhetoric, including calls for higher taxes on the rich and a ban on weapons exports. Only in passing did Gysi demand equal status for east Germans, who still have a lower living standard than their western compatriots.

To appeal to the westerns, the ex-Communists have been trumpeting remorse about their unsavory history.

Last month, the party apologized for East Germany's role in the Soviet-led crushing of the Prague Spring communist reform movement in Czechoslovakia 30 years ago. The PDS also accepted ``moral responsibility'' for ``wrongdoing'' by the East German regime of its predecessor, the Socialist Unity Party.

Not everyone who heard Gysi was convinced.

``His positions are OK, but I'm just not clear about the party's relationship to the past,'' said Joerg Muncke, a 33-year-old mathematician. ``That will probably keep me from voting for them.''