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Russia Sets Presidential Vote

Russian lawmakers on Wednesday set March 26 as the date for the country's next presidential election, kicking off a campaign in which acting President Vladimir Putin is the clear favorite to succeed Boris Yeltsin.

With many Russians still trying to take in Yeltsin's resignation, the upper chamber of parliament, or Federation Council, voted 145-1 to approve the early election date. The election originally had been set for June, at the scheduled end of Yeltsin's term.

Putin said he hoped the election would build stability in Russia.

"This will help the consolidation of society," he said after meeting political and parliamentary leaders.

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Opposition parties, caught by surprise by Yeltsin's resignation Dec. 31, were scrambling Wednesday to select candidates and put together campaigns. Exhausted from parliamentary elections two weeks ago, the parties have less than three months to gear up again before the presidential vote.

Putin, already the country's most popular politician, will have the full backing of the government and state-controlled media in the campaign. Aides say he probably won't campaign much, focusing instead on leadership duties.

Extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky is the only other politician to have formally announced his candidacy. Russian wire services said Wednesday that liberal lawmaker Grigory Yavlinsky will declare soon.

Several top politicians who had been expected to run were reconsidering the idea in view of Putin's huge lead.

Former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov have not said whether they will run. Primakov said last month he would run in the scheduled June balloting, but his party did worse than expected in the Dec. 19 parliamentary elections.

Putin said Wednesday he hoped the presidential election would be clean, free of the smear tactics that characterized the parlamentary elections. During that campaign, candidates accused each other of everything from murder to theft.

"All have agreed that it is necessary to conduct it only within the boundaries of the law," Putin said. "It should be clean, without the war of compromising materials."

Yeltsin's resignation came as a shock to his controversial daughter, who said his family was only told of his plans at the last moment.

"Dad said nothing to his family. When early on Dec. 31 he said at home that he was going to resign, Mom did not even realize that he was resigning the same day," Tatyana Dyachenko was quoted as saying in an interview published Wednesday by the Kommersant daily newspaper.

Yeltsin now hopes to travel and see the world, said Dyachenko, who has been accused of exercising undue influence over government policy, and has recently been a focus of an investigation into allegations of Kremlin bribery involving kickbacks from a Swiss construction company.

Putin dismissed her Monday from her Kremlin post as a presidential "image adviser."

Earlier, Putin said he knew about Yeltsin's decision to step down about 10 days before it happened. Putin said Yeltsin resigned to give him the best chance of winning the presidency.

"He wanted the presidential campaign to develop according to his wishes. He was helping me," Putin said in a television interview Tuesday evening.

In the parliamentary elections, centrists including the Kremlin-backed Unity faction scored a surprise triumph. The vote was a strong endorsement for Putin, who had backed Unity.

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