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    Poll says Putin's protege more popular than president

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    Dmitry Medvedev endorsed by Putin as his successor is enjoying greater voter support than the president had in 2004, a Russian daily said on Thursday citing an independent pollster.

    MOSCOW, December 27 (RIA Novosti) - Dmitry Medvedev endorsed by Putin as his successor is enjoying greater voter support than the president had in 2004, a Russian daily said on Thursday citing an independent pollster.

    Vedomosti reported that 79% of respondents in a recent poll conducted by the Levada Center said they would back Medvedev, formally nominated by the ruling United Russia party to run in presidential elections on March 2.

    In 2004 polls, Vladimir Putin won a second presidential term, gaining 71.3% of the vote. Putin has repeatedly refused to amend the Constitution to allow him to run again in 2008 despite persistent appeals from his supporters.

    In a Levada Center survey conducted in mid-December, 35% of respondents expressed their support for Medvedev, 42, Putin's longtime ally. But after the president publicly announced his approval for the candidate on December 10, his rating has grown, the business daily said.

    A latest poll conducted by the state-run VTsIOM opinion center said 52% of respondents would vote for Medvedev against 27% in mid-December, the daily said.

    Konstantin Simonov, head of the Center for Current Politics think tank, told Vedomosti that Medvedev was unlikely to get 79% support in the March 2 vote, but could achieve the same percentage as Putin received in 2004.

    Simonov said Medvedev's high popularity rating is so far down to Putin's endorsement. "The country will vote for the Putin-Medvedev tandem," he told the paper.

    A Levada analyst, Denis Volkov, explains Medvedev's high popularity rating by "an absence of strong rivals."

    The leaders of the ultranationalist LDPR party and the Communist Party were the first party nominees to be formally registered as contenders on Wednesday. Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Gennady Zyuganov will run for the presidency for a fourth and third time respectively. They both missed the 2004 elections.

    The Levada Center was quoted by the paper as saying that Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Gennady Zyuganov each received 9% backing from respondents. And 2% of those surveyed said they would vote for Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister and democratic opposition leader.

    The poll was conducted on December 21-25 among a sample of 1,600 respondents, with an error margin not exceeding 3%.

    Boris Nemtsov, earlier nominated by the liberal opposition Union of Right Forces, or the SPS, said on Wednesday he was withdrawing from the race to make way for Kasyanov as the sole democratic opposition candidate. Nemtsov condemned the use of administrative resources by the Kremlin to promote its candidate.

    Election authorities said on Thursday that Medvedev could be formally registered for the race after the New Year.

    Central Election Commission chief Vladimir Churov said Medvedev would have to submit a financial statement and some other documents. As his application is from a party holding a parliamentary majority, he is exempt from providing 2 million signatures to support his application, unlike those nominated by action groups or parties that failed to make it into the State Duma at the December 2 elections.

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