MOSCOW — Rising discontent over corruption and a lack of real political reform ahead of Sunday's presidential election could force Vladimir Putin into a runoff as he seeks to secure a third term in the Kremlin.
But even if that happens, few here think Mr. Putin would have to worry about any of his four presidential rivals, whose credentials as genuine opposition candidates have been called into question.
"Those candidates that are not in the Kremlin's pocket are slapping at it and trying to get in," said Alexei Mukhin of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information, a think tank. "It's a warm and cozy place, and there is plenty of money inside."
State-run pollster VTsIOM has predicted that Mr. Putin, the current prime minister, would win about 59 percent of the vote.
His closest rival is Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, whose polling numbers have swung between 10 percent and 15 percent.
Mr. Zyuganov, 67, has taken part in every presidential election but one since 1996, when he forced eventual winner Boris Yeltsin into a runoff.
He also has failed to offer a serious challenge since then, finishing a distant second every time.
"He is afraid of winning," political analyst Valery Khomyakov said. "Both the party and its leader have found their niche as the main opposition force, and it doesn't appear as if they are ready to go beyond these limits."
Mr. Zyuganov has offered a more animated campaign this time, even signing a cooperation deal with the radical Left Front movement's young leader, Sergei Udaltsov, one of the figureheads of the anti-Putin demonstrations.
Yet Mr. Zyuganov's position as the candidate most likely to face Mr. Putin in a runoff has caused a dilemma among foes of the government.
"If there's going to be a runoff election between Vladimir Putin and Gennady Zyuganov, should you vote for the communist leader?" Andrei Kolesnikov said in his column for the opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper.
"How could an educated, forward-thinking person with steadfast democratic convictions and clear-cut moral principles vote for Putin? There's no way. But how could such a person, on the other hand, vote for Zyuganov?"
A weakened image
Mr. Putin, 59, served as president from 2000 to 2008, when he was forced to step down by the constitution. He handed over power to his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and took the post of prime minister.
Still, he has remained the country's most powerful politician, incurring the wrath of demonstrators and critics who bemoan the country's economic disparities and his government's corruption and backsliding on democratic reforms.
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.
Others suggest his wealth is good reason to vote for him.
"He wouldn't be tempted by corruption, mainly because he's already rich enough," said business journalist Anastasia Markitan. "He'd be like an effective CEO, if elected."
That seems unlikely: Mr. Prokhorov's poll ratings are about 5 percent in state-run and independent surveys.
Another candidate, former upper-house leader Sergei Mironov, 58, has similarly low polling figures and arguably the least credibility of all candidates.
He got less than 1 percent in the 2004 vote, the only other time he has run, and said ahead of the election that he thought Mr. Putin was the best man for president.
He also as much as acknowledged that his participation is the Kremlin's "backup" in case all the other candidates pulled out. This time, he has positioned himself as a left-leaning anti-Putin reformer, but few are convinced.
Several other would-be candidates were denied registration for the vote, including liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky, who also has the support of about 5 percent of Russians.
Mr. Yavlinsky has charged that he was refused registration after announcing plans to train and send thousands of monitors to voting stations on election day.
"We want to see Yavlinsky on the ballot paper," protest leader and opposition figure Boris Nemtsov said before a recent anti-government rally. "That would at least make the polls at least seem like real elections - all the other candidates rely on Putin, to some extent or another."