Putin kicked off his low-key campaign on Feb. 12, saying that a sitting head of state "should not advertise himself ... and tell stories that have little to do with reality. It should have been done in the past four years."
Indeed, many Russians praise Putin for returning strong and sober leadership to the Kremlin, for acting with resolve internationally and in Chechnya, and acting against widely vilified oligarchs. A booming growth economy based on rising oil prices has bumped up salaries and doubled pensions.
But the price of that stronger leadership, despite Putin's rhetoric about "people's natural striving for democracy," has been a Kremlin reasserting control over key elements of civil society. Critics and rival candidates charge that, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, never have the odds been so stacked against them.
The Kremlin controls television broadcasting, and while Putin gave up his free allotment of TV time - just as he refused to take part in debates among candidates - the free airtime set aside for Putin's rivals is dwarfed by "news" coverage of every presidential activity.
Observers also decry the wide use of "administrative resources" by the Kremlin and local officials, to ensure a high voter turnout, or to make trouble for rivals on the campaign trail.
On Wednesday, a string of pro-democracy groups warned of an "unprecedented level" of state interference, a revival of "old methods of mass manipulation of citizens' votes."
The result is that, in a field of half a dozen contenders, Russia's election is a one-horse race.
"It's not easy, but these are our rules of the game.... Putin is doing nothing new," says presidential candidate Sergei Glazyev.
The president's vast approval ratings mean that Putin "had this chance" to ensure clean elections in Russia, while still winning handily, Mr. Glazyev says. Instead, the Kremlin is pressuring regional governors and local officials to get out the vote, to provide more credibility for a second term, Glazyev says: "[Putin] himself undermined his own legitimacy."