By Elizabeth Piper
MOSCOW (Reuters) - To his admirers, he is the man who saved Russia from chaos and the clutches of Western imperialism, soothing its hurt pride and revitalizing its military might to restore it to greatness.
They see him as an "ideal man" who wins wars, puts the West in its place and ensures workers keep their jobs by preventing the closure of struggling factories - but also makes time to ride horses, dive for ancient treasure and ski down mountains.
Vladimir Putin, for some in Russia, is superman.
The former spy who has dominated Russia since 1999 sought to bolster his image in his annual televised phone-in on Thursday, portraying himself as the man to maintain stability and unite the country.
There may be fewer Russians who believe in the tough-guy image now but, outside the big cities where successful young professionals have been leading the biggest opposition protests of his 12-year rule, they are still there, and in large numbers.
"You can never love someone who was once your enemy. But I like him. I can say that. He's a good leader. He watches over us, and he's given us the resources to rebuild our city," said a 26-year-old who gave his name only as Omar in Grozny, capital of the Chechnya region where Putin ousted a separatist government in a devastating war.
On the other side of Russia, in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, 18-year-old Maxim, an activist in Putin's United Russia party, put it simply.
"I support Putin because he is a real man. He's strong."
Putin's challenge is to harness that kind of support and ensure it does not erode further before the March 4 presidential election, which he is still expected to win, although not as easily as seemed likely just a few weeks ago.
"Everything's changed. Not so long ago, he had a large majority. Now he needs to rediscover these people. But they won't come into the fold of their own accord," said Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and former Kremlin adviser.
"He will want to start something new, he will try to show a new Putin to win back some of the love. It's a bit like showbusiness - to win back your fans you've got to get back on the stage."
POWER BASE OUTSIDE CITIES
The 59-year-old prime minister has long had a loyal following in small towns and villages and has a power base in state-owned businesses, among the bureaucrats who owe their careers to him, the businessmen whose fortunes depend on his goodwill and an older population afraid of again losing everything they own to change.
In a parliamentary election on December 4, which the opposition says was slanted to favor Putin's United Russia, much of the ruling party's support came from provincial towns and villages that hold between 62 to 63 percent of Russia's 142 million population. It was in major cities that support for the party, and Putin, has stumbled most.
"I don't think he expected it at all," said Boris Dubin, director of political and social studies at polling agency Levada.
He said Putin's team had calculated that an announcement on September 24 that he would swap jobs with President Dmitry Medvedev would lead to a surge in his popularity by signaling his return to the top job after four years as prime minister. This although he had in reality remained in charge under their power-sharing deal.
Instead, many voters in the cities were upset by what they saw as arrogance that their political future - which if Putin wins two more presidential terms would stretch until 2024 - had been decided without them.
"They didn't expect that people, mostly qualified professionals ... would hate the fact that, behind their backs, they made this deal to 'castle' well before its announcement; almost four years ago they agreed this," Dubin said, using chess terminology.
In the provinces, it was a different story.
Putin has long enjoyed success in the small provincial towns and villages by presenting himself in one of his favorite guises - as what has been referred to as the plumber tsar, the ruler who is prepared to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty.
Aware of this kind of image, Putin travelled before the election to Russia's southern bread basket region to help bring in the harvest. He and Medvedev even drove combine harvesters.
"Did you like it?" a grinning Medvedev asked Putin after getting down from his harvester.
"Yes, very much," Putin said, playing to the television cameras before boasting about the six tonnes of corn he had harvested in a field that had been left with just a small square
for Russia's leaders to cut.
With lives that have changed little since Soviet times, many Russians in the villages and small towns still have an unrivalled reverence for their leaders, a tradition from which tsars, Soviet commissars and now presidents have benefited.
They often have little real choice. Some local officials are not shy of warning voters that vital government funding could depend on how they vote.
"How we live in the republic over the next five or six years depends on how responsibly and correctly we vote in the elections," Mikhail Surkov, a district head in the Mordovia republic in central Russia, was quoted as telling pensioners.
"Our people are wise. They know whom to vote for. And anyway candidates for other parties are not active, knowing that it makes no sense to spend time here on the election campaign," he told the New Times magazine.
Many villagers have no access to the Internet, on which opposition protesters have been issuing invitations to protest, and they get most of their news from state television or local newspapers which are often run by the ruling party.
The state channels pump out a daily diet of Putin's and Medvedev's successes. Even footage of protests shown by state television last Saturday contained no direct criticism of Putin or calls for him to step aside.
"The fundamental organizations which everyone uses in the provinces have not changed in terms of their form or how they function. They are Soviet," Dubin said.
They are the state's "collective hostages," he said.
But if the main television channels step up their tentative coverage of the protests and unrest, more people outside the big cities might yet change their mind, he said.
"I don't think it's the case that they really love Putin and it's not the case that they completely trust him," Dubin said.
"He represents the state and for them, even if they don't like parts of the state, they know very well they have no other partners to turn to. The state is their best and only chance."
Putin has developed a political system where much of Russia's social and economic life is beholden to the state. In Russia that means, by extension, to him.
Even big business, which is supposedly free of state control, has to watch its step.
The fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man but now imprisoned on fraud and other charges after falling foul of the Kremlin, serves as a reminder to all businessmen - including the super-rich oligarchs - who is the boss.
"Every big decision has to have Putin's approval. Before starting a big deal, they run it past Putin. Before signing, they check again with Putin," said a senior Western business executive with many years experience in Russia.
Business leaders have had 12 years under Putin, as president or prime minister, to learn the rules of his game. Some fear a change of ruler would upset the stable political system they favor.
Alexander Khodachek, director of the Higher School of Economics in St Petersburg, said some of Putin's strongest backers had made their fortunes over the last 10 years - including some from Russia's second city, where Putin cut his political teeth as an aide to the mayor.
What would happen to their fortunes if Putin were to go?
As Maxim Ustyugov, 37, an entrepreneur in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg put it: "Don't change your horses in midstream. We are in midstream and only just standing."
Big business would be unlikely to turn against Putin, at least not at this time, although some of Russia's richest and most powerful tycoons have moved or are moving their businesses to Britain, where they often educate their children and have more faith in the courts.
"Putin will be holding out a hand to try to hang on to some of the people who are not happy, especially those in the cities, in the middle class, in business and especially medium-sized business," Pavlovsky said.
Another important part of Putin's script for reinforcing his power base could be to try to rekindle Soviet-era paranoia over the West, suggesting the United States stoked the protests.
He has already show he will do this, tapping into a feeling of 'us and them' that has marked Russian life for decades, one which helped create the Nashi (Ours) youth movement and several other offshoots that Putin relies on for support.
The government has spent large amounts on these groups, leading critics go so far as to say that youngsters are encouraged at regular meetings and long summer camps to all but worship Putin.
Russian newspaper Vedomosti reported that Nashi, which has in the past used threatening and sometimes violent measures against its 'enemies' or foreign diplomats and critical journalists, received 467 million roubles ($13.8 million) in the same period - a lot more than other youth organizations.
Maria Kozhevnikova, a 27-year-old former actress, model and one-time Russian Playboy cover girl who is a member of the Young Guard, United Russia's youth movement, said its group had an important role helping the needy.
She, like several other members of the Young Guard, has moved swiftly up the ranks and is about to take up a seat in parliament for United Russia. She echoes Putin in suggesting the opposition protests are being funded from outside Russia.
"A 'strong Russia' cannot be controlled," she said in an email response to Reuters. "Mass rallies have never solved the people's problems and answered their aspirations. The people were always just a weapon in the struggle for power."
Nashi and Young Guard supporters say Putin is needed to prevent Russia returning to the turmoil of the late 1980s as the Soviet Union collapsed and the 1990s when the transition to a free-market economy proved chaotic.
"I've seen Putin close up several times and I want to say that this man has very strong vibes," Kozhevnikova said.
"I've watched how people have changed when they got close to Putin, not because they are afraid, but because they feel a calm and strong confidence. Because of this, the West is afraid of him, and that is understandable."
Putin's greatest advantage is perhaps that, for now, there are few alternatives.
Russia's opposition - those who are permitted to run in elections - have produced few challengers. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov has failed to win the presidency three times, and nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky has lost on all of the four occasions he tried.
The candidacy of billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov is widely seen as a Kremlin ploy to offer a choice for middle class voters and not as a serious challenge. No leader of the opposition protests is registered for the election and there are doubts that any of them could unite the opposition.
"Putin has already been president so he knows what to do, what it is all about," said Dima, a young voter in Vladivostok.
"He is strong - a real Russian. And who else is there? Who is the Communist man ... Zyuganov? I don't want him. And who else? Zhirinovsky is a joker."
(Additional reporting by Thomas Grove in Grozny, Guy Faulconbridge in Vladivostok, Natalia Shurmina in Yekaterinburg and Timothy Heritage in Moscow)