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“Personally, I wouldn’t vote for him _ but (the tattoos) are not a problem at all,” said Tomas Pistora, a 33-year-old IT specialist from Prague. “The young people prefer him because they don’t have a better choice.”

Many Czechs, especially in the capital, simply aren’t shocked with Franz’s look because the face of the 53-year-old professor at Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts has been around for years.

“The tattoo doesn’t make any difference,” said Jakub Fisera, a student in Prague, adding a lack of experience in politics was more an issue.

Franz calls his tattoos body art. His face is a riot of green and red swirls against a background of blue. On his hands is a portrait of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu, on his chest the crucified Christ.

“A tattoo is a sign of a free will and that does not harm the freedom of anyone else,” he says.

For the first time, the Czech president will be elected in a popular vote _ a new system that makes it possible for independent candidates like Franz to run for the largely ceremonial post.

Vaclav Klaus, the incumbent, opposed the change. He called it “a fatal mistake” and said he feared the likes of Franz might succeed him.

A total of nine candidates are running. Unlike the Euro-skeptic Klaus who attacked the EU at every opportunity, the favorites, Zeman and Fischer, have a more moderate approach to the bloc which the country joined in 2004.

Zeman, the leftist premier in 1998-02, leads the polls with about 25 percent support. Fischer, a centrist and a former state bureaucrat, gained significant popularity when he led a caretaker government in 2009-10. He polls at about 20 percent.

As the campaign approached its end on Tuesday, eight candidates were busy on the stump. The ninth _ Franz _ had other matters to deal with: a final rehearsal of his opera “War with the Newts” at the State Opera.

Torn between art and politics, Franz cut short his appearance at an election debate to return to the opera house that is part of Prague’s National Theater.

But he committed to staying to the end of Thursday’s final televised debate. It wasn’t an easy choice, but he realized his credibility demanded that he take part.

“For a Czech composer to have a world premiere in the National Theater is something extraordinary. I had to make a choice between a service to the public and the fulfillment of my life-long dream. I’ve made the choice and will be at the debate.”

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Associated Press video journalist Adam Pemble in Prague contributed to this report.