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For Vladimir Putin, winning Russia's presidency may be the easy part

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Putin can no longer count on the stratospheric public approval ratings that allowed him to walk to a 71 percent reelection victory in 2004 and secured his handpicked protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, 70 percent of the vote in 2008. But according to a poll released this week by the independent Levada Center in Moscow, Putin's public approval rating has fallen from a high of 85 percent in mid-2008 to about 65 percent this month. The survey predicts that Putin will win comfortably on March 4, with over 60 percent of the votes. 

After widespread public outrage over reports of fraud in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, this voting day will see something new for Russia: Up to 50,000 volunteer monitors will swarm over polling stations around the country, keeping a close eye on ballot boxes and watching votes get counted. 

The campaign's final days have seen some odd twists, which suggest Putin's handlers may not fully trust the pollsters' projections. This week Russian security services announced, with great media fanfare, that they had thwarted a plot by Chechen terrorists to assassinate Putin after the election – a claim that critics ridiculed as a desperate election ploy. 

Then, just days before the voting, Putin himself claimed that opposition forces were planning to kill one of their own leaders, and blame it on the Kremlin, in order to disrupt his expected electoral victory. "They are looking among well-known people for a sacrificial victim," Putin said. "They could, I'm sorry, knock someone off and then blame the authorities."

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