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Putin Campaign Focuses on Officials

February 16, 2000

KANEVSKAYA, Russia (AP) _ As Vladimir Putin inspected a dairy on a rainy morning, there was little to suggest Russia’s leading presidential candidate was working the campaign trail.

Flanked by local officials, Putin patiently listened to facts and figures on production, occasionally nodding or fingering animal feed. He glided past waiting farm workers _ and potential voters _ without a word.

If disappointed that the candidate hadn’t paused to shake hands and chat, the farm workers didn’t want to show it.

``We have seen him on TV and wanted very much to see him in the flesh,″ said Galina Grechana, a dairy worker. ``We liked him and we will all vote for him.″

``He has his job to do, and we must do ours,″ said her colleague, Natalia Trubova.

Unlike Boris Yeltsin, who was always eager to wade into crowds, Putin doesn’t show much enthusiasm for mixing with the voters.

On a recent tour of southern Russia, the former KGB agent did stop to speak to people on a few occasions, but the encounters were brief, with the candidate reserved and apparently not very comfortable.

Instead, Putin spent most of his time talking to local officials _ who can deliver votes. And that appears to be key to his campaign for winning a full term in the Kremlin.

``Putin realizes that most people will vote the way the local chiefs tell them, and he tries to gather the support of governors and lower-ranking officials,″ said Yevgeny Volk, who heads the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation.

The recent visit to the Kolos farm near Kanevskaya in southern Russia was part of a two-day trip to Krasnodar Province, long the turf of his main foe in the March 26 election _ Communist chief Gennady Zyuganov. Opinion polls give Putin, 47, a huge lead over Zyuganov and suggest an easy win.

On the night he arrived in Krasnodar, Putin joined Gov. Nikolai Kondratenko for a stroll around the city, surrounded by bodyguards and reporters. Rather than seeking out voters, he met for several hours with a group of other regional governors.

Putin spent most of the following day at a session of agricultural officials from around the country.

Kondratenko, a widely popular official who led the region during Soviet times and supports the Communists, was at Putin’s side almost every minute and was quick to praise him.

``We discussed everything,″ he said. ``He knows how to listen and has a rational approach to things.″

Some of Kondratenko’s enthusiasm was reflected among local residents.

``We used to vote for the Communists, but if Kondratenko decides to support Putin, most people will take his lead,″ said a Krasnodar bus driver who gave only his first name, Volodya.

Similar situations exist across Russia, where democracy is still young and people are nostalgic for the stability of the Soviet past, analysts say.

In Krasnodar, Putin made a brief visit to a children’s hospital, presenting toys and ultrasound equipment worth $250,000.

Several children were let into a room to play with the toys moments before Putin walked in, followed by flashing cameras and a huge retinue of bodyguards, doctors and officials.

``Who won?″ Putin asked two small boys playing with a hockey game. The awed boys stared at him in silence.

``I’m asking you who won?″ Putin repeated, a wry smile flickering on his lips. But the dumbfounded boys remained silent.

Putin turned to another boy, asking why he was in the hospital. The boy haltingly explained that his legs were hurt in a road accident.

``You should have been more careful,″ Putin said.

When Putin left 10 minutes later, the doctors looked at each other in amazement.

``Is that all?″ one asked.

Approached by a reporter, the doctors quickly covered up their surprise.

``We are very grateful to him for giving us this sophisticated device,″ said Dr. Galina Kalinichenko. ``He is very busy, but he still found time to visit us.″

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