INTRO: The Russian government is following the tight U.S. presidential race with keen interest. Russian President Vladimir Putin, while not saying it outright, has made clear he favors incumbent U.S. President Bush over his Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry. VOA's Lisa McAdams in Moscow has more.

TEXT: A Kremlin spokesperson recently said President Putin's administration was glad to see that both U.S. presidential candidates agreed on the need to maintain close ties with Russia. But many analysts, including Boris Makarenko, the deputy head of Russia's Center for Political Technologies, say the Russian leader does have a preference.


"I believe we all know that Mr. Putin made it very clear that, if President Bush loses, that would be a victory for international terrorists. That's a really far-reaching statement of a foreign leader about U.S. elections. So, Mr. Putin almost exclusively shows that, though he will certainly respect the choice of (the) American people, he would be much more comfortable if President Bush were re-elected."

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Mr. Makarenko refers to recent comments by the Russian president, in which he offered what many in Moscow view as an open endorsement of President Bush.


Mr. Putin says he believes the aim of international terrorism is to bring maximum damage to Mr. Bush's re-election campaign.

Mr. Makarenko says the Russian leader's support for Mr. Bush is not surprising. He says both men have seen their nations struck by deadly terrorist attacks, and have since bonded in waging war on international terrorism.

Masha Lippmann is an analyst on Russian- U.S. relations at Moscow's Carnegie Institute. She says the Russian people do not necessarily share President Putin's views on the matter.


"Actually, a recent poll held in August (shows), 20 percent said they favor (Senator) Kerry, 13 percent say they favor (President) Bush, 24 (percent) say they favor neither and 14 (percent) say they favor them equally - with 20 (percent) finding it hard to say. So, as can be seen, only about one-third of the Russian population actually cares about one as opposed to the other. The rest, more or less, are saying we don't care, it doesn't really matter."

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/// OPT /// Ms. Lippmann says another recent poll shows that 60 percent of Russians feel that Americans have a negative effect on Russia, and that less than one-third of respondents had a positive view of the United States. /// END OPT ///

Many Russians, Ms. Lippmann says, took offense at Senator Kerry's remark during the final presidential debate that freedom, in his view, was not on the march in Russia right now. She says the Russians are very sensitive about the country's image abroad, and want Russia to be respected as a super-power.

No matter who wins in the November second elections, analyst Makarenko says he does not think there will be major U-S policy changes with regard to Russia.


"I would not expect dramatic changes, neither in the general framework, nor specific foreign policy issues. Foreign policy in the U.S. is bipartisan. And as regards Russia, any next American president would be interested in keeping relations with Russia in good standing, in continuing cooperation in the fight against terrorism and (in) many other issues, global and regional alike."

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One key area where they differ, Mr. Makarenko says, is Iraq, where President Putin opposed Mr. Bush's decision to go to war. (SIGNED)