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In Final Lap, Race for Russian Presidency Rides on Turnout

Weather may influence outcome more than Yeltsin's faltering image

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This was not the way the Kremlin wanted it to end.

Racing to stay ahead of his Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov, Russian President Boris Yeltsin had hoped to surge his way into Wednesday's crucial election runoff on a crescendo of tumultuous campaign stops and statesman-like summits.

Instead, he has been crawling toward the finish line, invisible for the last five days and canceling one public appearance after another because of what his aides describe as a sore throat. He reappeared yesterday, looking tired to many Russians, to make a televised final appeal to voters.

Mr. Yeltsin's absence from the public eye at such a critical moment in his political career has reawakened longstanding concerns about his health. Last year he suffered two bouts of heart problems that put him in the hospital for over two months.

Mr. Zyuganov has sought to capitalize on the issue by claiming that Yeltsin is clearly not in good health.

Whether worries about Yeltsin's health will change voters' minds when they go to the polls on Wednesday, however, is less obvious.

The president has looked unwell for much of the past two years, and it was his vigorous election campaign rather than his current indisposition that surprised most Russians.

The latest opinion polls all put Yeltsin ahead, but not by much. Pollsters who have been reasonably reliable in the past suggest that the spread may be as narrow as 50 per cent to 46 per cent, with the rest of the electorate voting "against both" candidates. The president's own advisers appear to believe this projection.

Everything, they say, depends on the size of the turnout, because Zyuganov's supporters, who tend to be older, are more motivated and dedicated voters who can be counted on to go to the polls.

Younger urban voters, who would almost certainly vote for Yeltsin, are notoriously casual about casting their ballots. Kremlin strategists are afraid that so many of them simply won't bother to vote that the president might lose the election.

Poll figures released Sunday night were not encouraging for him. They suggested that turnout in the president's strongholds such as Moscow and St. Petersburg could fall as low as 50 percent.

"Turnout of under 60 percent is a dangerous threshold under which Zyuganov's victory is possible," warned Vyacheslav Nikonov, a senior campaign aide.

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