U.S. presidential hopefuls this week made tough statements about Russia's acting president, Vladimir Putin, raising the possibility that election-year pressures could make it difficult for the Clinton administration to build a strong relationship with him.

Seizing the chance to distance themselves from the Clinton administration and Vice President Gore's efforts to maintain ties with Kremlin leaders, major candidates condemned Putin for Russia's brutal military campaign in Chechnya, which has boosted his popularity. Both Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) called for a cutoff in Export-Import Bank financing to protest the war.

Even if Putin emerges as a more liberal, reformist president than is now generally expected, some analysts fear that political pressure for American leaders to show toughness might prevent the United States from providing him with much support.

"This is a time of great uncertainty in Russian politics," said Michael A. McFaul, senior associate on Russian politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. McFaul compared the situation to that of 1992, when, in his judgment, then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III was effectively running President George Bush's reelection campaign and domestic political distractions kept the United States from adequately helping Russia's new leaders, who then included genuine reformers.

"We dropped the ball at a crucial time," McFaul said. "What scares me about the political situation is that no one can say a good thing about Russia during the U.S. campaign, and it could be a disaster if we prejudge this guy."

This week, certainly, presidential hopefuls were not shy about judging Putin. Bradley described him as "somebody who's seen the world, seems to be committed to economic reform, but [who] is waging a brutal war in Chechnya, which we should condemn him for." Speaking on the nationally syndicated radio show of Don Imus, Bradley said, "I think we shouldn't hesitate to express our opinion about this kind of brutal activity."

McCain endorsed broad economic sanctions against Russia, including a halt to loans from the International Monetary Fund. "I'd state unequivocally that there would be no more Export-Import [Bank] loans, that the United States would not support any further IMF funding until this thing is brought to some kind of reasonable conclusion," McCain said aboard his campaign bus Monday night.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) also voiced concern about Putin. "I'm troubled by the fact that Mr. Putin has gained popularity as a result of Chechnya," Bush said in Manchester, N.H. But he added, "I'm hopeful that he will lead his country to substantive and real reforms."

By contrast, Gore has been restrained on the subject of Russia's new leader, congratulating him and urging greater cooperation. "The vice president's position on Putin is essentially waiting for further indications of where Putin is going to go and how he's going to manage himself in this new situation," said Leon Fuerth, Gore's national security adviser.

While the Clinton administration has sharply criticized Russia's campaign in Chechnya, Clinton and Gore have opposed linking IMF funding to the war. Although Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright had suggested tying one Ex-Im loan to Chechnya, the administration did nothing to block that loan last week.

"For us to start doing this war dance is crazy in terms of the interests of the United States," said a Gore aide. Arguing that Gore's approach is "based on a lot of experience, whereas the others' experience is abstract," the aide charged that the other candidates are "too eager to cut ties, make breaks, show anger and embitter a relationship before you even get started."

McFaul speculated that Putin's endorsement of the START II arms control treaty after the Russian parliamentary elections in December might have been a message to the West. "It was the first thing he said after the election," McFaul noted. "They wanted to make signal to the West: It's a mess in Chechnya, but I see the long term with you."

A senior U.S. policymaker on Russia said dealing with Putin is different from dealing with Boris Yeltsin in 1992, when Yeltsin was still a relatively new Russian president: "Though we didn't know Yeltsin well, there was an expectation that our interests were going to be congruent on all issues."

Yet, the Clinton administration official added, Putin might be better able to deliver on such issues as arms control because he is not deeply at odds with the Russian parliament.

A White House official who deals with Russia policy also said recent changes in the composition of the Russian parliament create opportunities for Putin.

"It depends on how clearly and strongly Putin defines an agenda and how actively he pursues it," the official said. The Russian parliament is largely "a blank slate," he said. "I don't want to say I'm optimistic or pessimistic. But there is an opportunity to build and shape coalitions."

Such calculations aren't the stuff of the U.S. campaign trail, however, especially amid Russia's shelling of the Chechen capital, Grozny.

"I think, quite frankly, that we should cut off Ex-Im Bank financing--I think that we have to do something here to demonstrate our opposition to it," Bradley said this week.

On Monday, McCain said: "You reach a point where you have to take a stand on certain issues, and I believe that a tacit acceptance of what the Russians are doing has worse long-term consequences than making it clear to them that there is a price to pay. It's terribly disturbing to see how Mr. Putin trod this path to power. It was through Chechnya. A year ago, nobody had heard of Putin. Now, he orchestrates this incredibly brutal offensive in Chechnya and the popularity of his government skyrockets."

CAPTION: Vladimir Putin, Russia's acting president, gained popularity over war in Chechnya.