Iranians were ready to go to the polls on Friday to elect a new president, although many people have vowed to sit out a process they call inconsequential in a country where unelected clerics exercise ultimate authority.
Public opinion surveys showed that Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a cleric, millionaire businessman and longtime fixture in Iran's theocratic establishment, remained the favorite. The Rafsanjani campaign, which has promoted a sense of inevitable ascent, has been buoyed by the former two-term president's reputation for managerial savvy and familiarity with the government's highest echelons.
Like other candidates, Rafsanjani has vowed to promote rapprochement with the United States and resolve tense negotiations over Iran's long-secret nuclear program.
"He's the best chance for democracy in Iran," said Sadjad Ghoroghi, a student activist working on the Rafsanjani campaign. "Because of his power and his level of thinking, he can do this."
But campaign aides said Rafsanjani, 70, likely would not muster the majority of votes required to avoid a runoff a week later -- a stage never before reached in Iranian presidential contests, which tend to be landslides.
Of the six other candidates still in the field, Mostafa Moin, a reformist, and Mohammad Qalibaf, a former national police chief who calls himself a "fundamentalist reformist," appeared best positioned to claim a slot in any two-candidate runoff, according to analysts and polls.
Moin, a former cabinet minister for the incumbent president, Mohammad Khatami, carries the banner of the reformist movement that for eight years has tried to loosen the grip of unelected clerics on the economy and personal freedoms.
Khatami has served two terms and is barred by law from seeking a third. Widespread and often bitter public disappointment with him and the reformist movement in general threatens to severely dampen voter turnout. But Iranians also express anger at the appointed clerics, who continue to jail critics and who barred all but eight presidential candidates -- none of them women -- from a field of more 1,000 applicants. One of the candidates dropped out Wednesday.
Senior reformists said a surge in turnout could sweep Moin to victory without a runoff.
"A rapid change is happening," Moin, 54, told a rally in Tehran on Tuesday night after a cross-country campaign swing. "We have seen a lot of change in people's opinion in the last few days."
Moin's campaign has sought to deflect attention from the reformers' failures -- especially in invigorating the economy and creating jobs for a young workforce -- by focusing relentlessly on the intransigence of senior clerics.
"People are not going to be deceived by economic problems," Moin said. "What we lack in this country -- and it's the key to every problem -- is democracy. Our demand is democracy, democracy and only democracy."
Qalibaf, the former national police chief, appears to have emerged as the most popular conservative candidate in a crowded field. Candidates with hard-line backgrounds have normally won the support of only the 10 percent to 20 percent of the electorate considered loyal to the power structure.
But Qalibaf, 44, has run a slick, soft-focus campaign that plays up his background not as a soldier but as a pilot. He was introduced at a rally this week with the words: "With you we are going to board a flight to success and prosperity!"
Over time, Qalibaf has altered his posture toward students demanding change. When serious campus demonstrations first broke out against the hard-line government in 1999, he joined other Revolutionary Guard commanders in signing a letter warning Khatami that they were ready to step in and quash the protests. After Qalibaf took charge of the police force the following year, his uniformed forces joined paramilitary groups in a crackdown.
But in 2003, Qalibaf deployed police as a buffer between government thugs and student protesters, then worked to ease tensions between the sides. He is now casting himself as a reformer, as are fellow traditionalists Ali Larijani, the state broadcasting chief, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the mayor of Tehran.
"The reality is, not all of them are reformist," said Mohammad Alikbarzadeh, 42. "But I believe he has done a good job with the police force," a reference to Qalibaf.
The ballot also includes Mohsen Mehralizadeh, a vice president who heads Khatami's ministry for sports, and Mehdi Karrubi, a moderate cleric who was speaker of the last parliament dominated by reformers but failed to win a seat in the legislature last year. His campaign is centered on a promise to give every Iranian $60 a month.
Turnout was the key unknown as campaigning ended early Thursday. The Interior Ministry predicted that 55 percent of Iran's estimated 46 million voters would go to the polls, down from 66 percent four years ago. About 79 percent turned out in 1997, when Khatami was first elected.
Interviews with ordinary Iranians suggested the turnout might be even lower than predicted.
"I don't believe it makes a difference," said Reza Ahmadi, 23, who had posters for Ahmadinejad in the windows of his family's bathroom fixture store, Sink Iran. "If we were going to vote, we would vote for him."
At a Tehran bakery, nobody buying bread during a 20-minute span at midday said they planned to vote.
Maliheh Hassani, recalling her vote for Khatami, said she wasn't going to vote, "because it doesn't make any difference. What has he done for eight years? Nothing. So why should we vote for these we don't even like that much?"
Still, she added, she thought many Iranians would ultimately turn out.
Moin supporters were counting on that, and found hope in the eleventh-hour reversals of several prominent figures who had urged an election boycott. Fatima Haqiqatjou, who resigned as a lawmaker last year to protest the mass ban on reformist candidates that put the parliament under conservative control, said her position changed with the emergence of four presidential candidates from Iran's hard-line military elite.
"I believed this state could not be changed from within," Haqiqatjou told the audience at a Moin rally this week. "Until a few days ago, I really believed we should boycott the election.
"But as we get close to the election, we hear the boots of the military man marching behind us. I believe they will shoot every freedom seeker."
Election officials said preliminary vote totals would be available several hours after polls closed Friday.