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He has largely rejected President Obama’s attempt to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations, and increasingly has used anti-Western rhetoric in his campaign to cultivate a nationalistic following.

A former KGB officer, Mr. Putin is expected to win the presidential contest, but protests and charges of fraud in his party’s victory in legislative elections in November were seen to have weakened his image. A runoff election would further weaken his standing.

A survey by the independent Levada Center showed that less than 40 percent of Russian voters would choose Mr. Putin. A candidate needs to get more than 50 percent of the votes to win outright in the first round.

Mr. Putin’s second-closest rival, with about 10 percent in polls, is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a 65-year-old nationalist who in the past has threatened to seize Alaska from the United States and launch nuclear weapons at Japan if elected president.

A belligerent and at times incoherent politician, Mr. Zhirinovsky terrified many in 1993 when his ultraright Liberal Democratic Party took first place in Russia’s parliamentary elections.

That was the peak of his popularity, and he has never secured more than 10 percent of the vote in presidential polls. Analysts say Mr. Zhirinovsky is more than satisfied with that showing.

“He knows he shouldn’t get more, because if he tries to get even 15 percent, then he will be seen as a serious opponent,” said analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. “But this isn’t in his interests. He has no political ambitions, only financial ones.”

Mr. Zhirinovsky’s election campaign has been typically bizarre, featuring a video clip of him whipping a donkey to illustrate how he would “get the country moving.”

He also has proposed cloning famous Russians, such as 19th-century composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

The oligarch and the ‘backup’

A new face in the election is tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, 46, who has an estimated fortune of $18 billion.

The former metals magnate and majority owner of the New Jersey Nets of the National Basketball Association has vowed to cut corruption and red tape, if elected, and is the only opposition candidate to have appeared at protest rallies.

However, his decision to run came as a surprise to many, not least because he had gone on record as saying he thought Mr. Putin is “the only one” capable of leading Russia.

Some see Mr. Prokhorov’s candidacy as part of a Kremlin plot to divide the opposition.

His status as an oligarch, one of the businessmen who divvied up the country’s wealth during the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, also means many ordinary Russians distrust him.

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