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Georgia's Ex-Leader Puts In Final Spurt On Comeback Trail

Saakashvili dismissed the critics as Soviet retrogrades and during the protest crisis accused opposition leaders of being part of a pro-Russian intended coup.

Now, however, the special forces are nowhere in sight and Saakashvili is presenting himself as a compromiser. He has pledged to bring new figures into his cabinet and to focus on poverty and unemployment. In one TV ad, as he listens to a war refugee describe his hard life, a tear rolls down his cheek -- which he insists was real. "Of course I was crying," he said. "If not for the health insurance that we gave them three months ago he would have been dead by now, that's what they told me."

Jonathan Kulick, director of studies at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi, said Saakashvili's approach has changed. "He became more avuncular," he said, adding that his style now is more like "chatting with the waitress in the diner in New Hampshire or talking to the farmer in Iowa about the price of soybeans."

But George Arveladze, one of several state ministers who have temporarily left their posts to work on Saakashvili's campaign, said the only difference is he now has more time for constituents. "Misha is the same old Misha as he used to be," he said. "He's doing what he loves to do the most -- being with people."

If Saakashvili does not win more than 50 percent on Saturday, there will be a runoff. His wife, Dutch-born Sandra Roelofs, says that in his mind, losing is not an option. "He simply cannot imagine that people don't understand the essentials of this election, that there is so much at stake. It is really a choice between black and white, between prosperity and [falling] back into chaos and uncertainty."

Whether Georgians believe in his sincerity may not be the key for Saakashvili to win. Many who criticize him say they fear the other candidates could be worse. These include a legislator/wine entrepreneur, supported by nine opposition parties, who has pledged to step down in favor of a parliamentary republic; a former Enron consultant who has cited his good looks among his qualifications; and a wealthy businessman with a white handlebar mustache who along with his campaign manager was caught last week on sting videos offering a state official $100 million to encourage post-election protests. He has since said he will withdraw from the race.

Opposition leaders have vowed to protest if they deem the elections unfair. After the airing of the videotaped conversations, which the businessman, Badri Patarkatsishvili, subsequently confirmed, government officials have been saying it will be hard to believe that any post-election protesters have not been paid.

Patarkatsishvili had sworn to spend every penny he had to defeat Saakashvili, but he had little popular support. He is part owner of Imedi, the opposition television station that was closed down in November. Following domestic and international pressure, the station was reopened. After the release of the videos, however, many of its journalists resigned in protest, and last week it suspended broadcasts again, silencing the only nationwide opposition station.

The fairness of the elections is widely seen as a test of whether Georgia can retain its favored status in the West. Organizations such as Transparency International and the National Democratic Institute already have accused the government of voter intimidation, misuse of funds and including untraceable voters on the rolls.

Saakashvili dismisses such reports, calling them biased.

In his campaign, as he did in his presidency, Saakashvili skates between holding up the West as a model and rejecting it as a parent figure. He has hired an American public relations firm, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, but is dismissive of one of the most common American candidate activities: the televised debate. A U.S.-style debate scheduled by a Washington-based elections organization was canceled after he said he would not attend.

Some analysts have warned that if elections are not perceived as fair, U.S. aid could cool. Saakashvili agrees the elections should be seen as fair, but he shrugs off the idea that U.S. support is crucial to his country's future, saying it has been "important psychologically, but economically wise, this is very insignificant."

Since the November unrest, foreign investment has slowed, pending the election results. Arveladze, whose regular job is minister of economic development, said, "We are still open, and Georgia is still as attractive as ever."

But perhaps not the same as ever. The rose-tinted view of Saakashvili's Georgia has faded, and many people -- including Saakashvili himself -- say that might not be bad.

"I believe that this will make Georgian democracy more mature," he said. "Beacon of democracy? It's not about being a beacon of democracy; we want to be normal. And you know, being normal in this region is in itself quite something."

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