A leading legislator in the party of former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov said today he doubts that Primakov will run for president, further clearing the field for the front-runner, Acting President Vladimir Putin.

Oleg Morozov, secretary of the coordinating council of the Fatherland-All Russia movement, made the comments as speculation mounted here about whether Putin, who enjoys high public approval ratings based on his prosecution of the war against separatist rebels in the southern region of Chechnya, will face any serious competition in the March 26 vote.

"I do not think that our potential candidate, Yevgeny Primakov, will want to join the presidential campaign now," Morozov told journalists.

Primakov, who served as prime minister in the aftermath of an August 1998 ruble devaluation that shattered the Russian economy, headed a political bloc with Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov in the parliamentary elections last month. Both have been considered possible presidential candidates, and Primakov announced on the eve of the parliamentary vote that he would run.

But Primakov's chances have suffered several setbacks. Putin, who was a little-known veteran of the KGB a few months ago, is now running Russia and commands his office's powerful tools--including two of the three major television channels.

Primakov and Luzhkov were targets of a smear campaign in the parliamentary races, engineered by the coterie of aides and financiers around former president Boris Yeltsin. Primakov's ratings subsequently fell, partially eroded by the rise in Putin's popularity. Then this week, a group of prominent regional governors formerly allied with Primakov and Luzhkov announced they will support Putin for president, a major setback for Primakov because the governors have sway over election procedures in their regions.

Primakov has not restated his intention to run since Yeltsin's surprise retirement on Dec. 31. The presidential election originally scheduled for June 4, will now be held March 26, forcing possible contenders to accelerate their campaigns. To qualify for the race, they must submit a half-million signatures supporting their candidacies by Feb. 13 to the Central Election Commission, which will certify a final list of candidates later in the month.

Primakov's group has not formally decided on its candidate, and it is possible he could run. But Morozov's comments suggested that the former foreign minister and spy chief is rethinking whether he wants to take on Putin. "We believe that today the potential candidate" from Fatherland-All Russia "will hardly be able to get a political rating necessary for victory," Morozov said. He added that it would be "senseless" for Primakov to run against Putin, "who holds similar positions on many points" of policy.

Political parties are now jockeying to choose a speaker of the lower house of parliament, the state Duma, and Morozov said Primakov could be the right person for that post. The leading candidate for speaker appears to be Sergei Stepashin, another former prime minister who is a member of the centrist Yabloko bloc.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party today nominated its leader, Gennady Zyuganov, to be its presidential candidate. Zyuganov has a steady base of about a fifth of the electorate but was defeated by Yeltsin in 1996 and is not seen as a serious challenger to Putin, whose favorable opinion poll ratings have been higher than 40 percent recently.

Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky has announced that he too will run but said he sees Putin as almost invincible. Today, ultra-nationalist legislator Vladimir Zhirinovsky added his name to the list of candidates but agreed that "Putin's chances of winning are certainly bigger than any one of us." Zhirinovsky also predicted Primakov would not enter the campaign.

Meanwhile, Putin approved today what Russian news agencies described as a new national security concept that places additional emphasis on fighting terrorism and organized crime. Details were not available.

Also today, Putin, who has been accused of not having an economic program, endorsed tighter restrictions on exporters, primarily oil, gas and metals giants, forcing them to sell 100 percent of their hard currency earnings on authorized exchanges, compared to the current 75 percent. The measure, suggested by the Central Bank, may run into opposition from the International Monetary Fund, which opposes tighter restrictions on currency, but the Kremlin and the IMF appear to be at an impasse on further loans to Russia, and the proposal could make it easier for Russia to repay its IMF debts.