A messy war in Chechnya, economic misery and unbridled corruption have tarnished many Russian political careers in recent years, including that of President Boris Yeltsin. But nothing has weighed down the soaring poll ratings of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who in the last three months has become Russia's most popular political figure.

Unexpectedly, he has taken center stage in the contest to succeed Yeltsin, according to analysts and politicians, but he has also made a big gamble on the outcome of an unpredictable war.

Putin, a sandy-haired professional intelligence officer and longtime KGB agent on the Cold War front lines in East Germany, maintains a public demeanor that is controlled, steely and humorless. He has tapped a bruised, angry vein of Russian sentiment with a tough-guy image and captured the loyalty of the humiliated armed forces.

"One thing is clear: Putin has a big political future," said analyst Valery Solovei of the Gorbachev Foundation.

Putin was appointed by Yeltsin in August just after Islamic militants from Chechnya rattled the Kremlin with a series of cross-border incursions into Dagestan. Then came a series of apartment house bombings in September that killed nearly 300 people and panicked Russia.

Putin championed a military attack that at the outset was described as creating a buffer zone but soon turned into a full-fledged ground offensive and aerial bombardment. Despite Western criticism, despite the tide of refugees, despite hints that Russian military losses are being concealed, and perhaps because of a strident Soviet-style propaganda campaign, the war has proved popular with the Russian public.

The wave of support has carried Putin with it. Downbeat, anxious and feeling helpless after the terrorist bombings, Russians were uplifted, at least temporarily, by Putin's no-nonsense stance. Even liberals such as Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais who opposed the first Chechen war have applauded. In preelection focus groups, young people, often the most sympathetic to free-market democracy in Russia, are surprisingly hawkish on Chechnya.

Putin has "caught the spirit of the country," said Dmitry Trenin, deputy director of the Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Putin, who speaks in measured, perfectly articulated tones and prefers crisply tailored spread-collar shirts, has waltzed to the top of public opinion polls in the past two months and reaffirmed last week that he intends to run for president next year. Virtually unknown to the public only last August, Putin now scores higher ratings than all of the more well-worn Russian political leaders, including Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov and former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov.

In Russia's nascent democracy, public opinion is fickle. Retired Lt. Gen. Alexander Lebed, too, once soared and crashed; reformer Boris Nemtsov became popular and then faded; former prime ministers Sergei Stepashin and Viktor Chernomyrdin have disappeared. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, long regarded as a possible Yeltsin heir, has plummeted.

Putin's rise has come on the eve of an election season, the first national balloting in Russia in more than three years. If he continues to enjoy the Kremlin's favor, he will remain a player, if not the deciding factor, in the coming power struggle to succeed Yeltsin.

"The ratings are really genuine," said the Gorbachev Foundation's Solovei. "I think the ratings are even lagging behind the public opinion somewhat. It is not a propaganda exaggeration. In some places, people start applauding when Putin's name is mentioned."

In the latest surveys by the Fund for Public Opinion, Putin is rated higher than any politician in recent years. When asked whom they would vote for if the presidential election were held today, 29 percent chose Putin, compared to 17 percent for Zyuganov and 13 percent for Primakov. At the time he was appointed, Putin drew only 2 percent. Yelena Petrenko, deputy general director of the polling group, said Putin's ratings are higher than any since Yeltsin was at the peak of his popularity in 1991.

Alexander Oslon, president of the fund, recently told reporters that Putin's rating was not just the result of the war but also because he fills up a "vacuum of positive things, a leader who knows where the country is going."

Solovei said the Russian attack on Chechnya reflected a public thirst for clarity and decisiveness. "This is not a demand for war, but for a tough and clear politics. For the first time, at the head of the government, people see a man who says clear things and who does what he says and what he does is in line with mass expectations."

Trenin said "many people wanted to close their eyes" to the seething problems in Chechnya after Russia's withdrawal at the end of the 1994-96 war. But that changed after the terrorist bombings, which Russia blamed on the Chechens. Trenin said Russians were asking themselves, "Don't we have two hands? Are we good for nothing?" Putin responded to this longing for some kind of action, he added.

Yeltsin, who fired Putin's four predecessors, has shown no signs yet of dissatisfaction, and has gone out of his way to praise Putin. But Putin's ride to the top of the polls also carries large risks. The war effort so far has met with light resistance from the Chechen rebels, but if the military campaign turns sour, Putin's ambitions may well go with it. The mercurial Yeltsin could easily make him a scapegoat.

Already there have been signs of trouble. The army mishandled the refugee tide into neighboring Ingushetia, bottling up the fleeing Chechens on the border and creating barren tent camps that provoked an outpouring of protests from the West. And sources said the military remains divided on the offensive. Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev has doubts about plunging deeper into Chechnya, they said, while the chief of the general staff, Anatoly Kvashnin, has pressed for further advances.

Trenin said that Putin's goal is to create a "position of strength" from which to negotiate later, and that will require inflicting heavy losses on the Chechen fighters. But, he added, Putin has not paid enough attention to the political equation. "I think they've overdone the military side, and underdone the political side," he said.

Russian officials have staged a vigorous propaganda campaign, with Putin at the helm. In this version of the war, the Chechens are rising up against the "bandits and terrorists" in their midst; the Chechens are blowing up their own houses; and there is no humanitarian crisis in Ingushetia. At the same time, Russian media, especially television, have supported the war and not shown the Chechen side, a marked contrast from the battles of 1994-96.

Beyond Chechnya, Putin's course is unclear. "This man is in many ways a mystery," said Solovei. Putin has ignored economic policy, leaving it in the hands of deputies and allowing the powerful Russian tycoons free rein. Although many Russians have expressed a desire to crack down on lawlessness and corruption, Putin has done little so far.

"There is one serious concern," Solovei said. "The war can serve as an excuse for the growth of anti-democratic trends in Russian politics." So far, there is no sign of a major pullback, such as canceling the elections. But there have been disturbing rumblings from the military, including one general on the Chechen front who announced he would not obey an order from the political leaders to retreat, if it were issued.

Putin, born in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, in 1952, graduated from the law school of Leningrad State University and went to work for the KGB's first main directorate, the foreign intelligence service. He served in East Germany. A private business intelligence service, Stratfor.Com, based in Austin, Tex., said in a recent profile that Putin was on the cutting edge of efforts to steal Western technology in the final years of the Cold War.

Later, Putin worked alongside Mayor Anatoly Sobchak of St. Petersburg, but he left the city after Sobchak's 1996 defeat. After taking a Kremlin job, Putin was later named chief of the Federal Security Service in Moscow, the main successor to the KGB.

Trenin described Putin as "technocratic" and a "no-nonsense pragmatist."

"In a way, it's a new generation of Russian leaders," he said.

CAPTION: SOARING POPULARITY (This chart was not available)

CAPTION: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, meets with business minister Ilya Yuzhanov. Putin has mostly left economic policy in the hands of advisers.