Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Wednesday he could face a runoff in the March presidential vote, his first acknowledgement that he may fail to muster enough support for an outright victory.
Putin's statement signaled he might be willing to accept tarnishing his father-of-the nation image if he fails to win more than 50 percent in the first round on March 4, rather than risk igniting more public outrage through blatant vote rigging.
Evidence of fraud in favor of Putin's party in a December parliamentary election triggered the biggest protests since the Soviet collapse two decades ago.
Putin said at a meeting with election monitors that "there is nothing horrible" about a runoff and he's ready for one, according to Russian news reports.
But he also warned of the dangers of a second round, saying it would lead to a "certain destabilization of the political situation." The need for stability in Russia has been the mantra of Putin's campaign.
Putin won his previous two presidential terms in 2000 and 2004 in the first round. After moving into the prime minister's job due to term limits, he has remained the No. 1 leader, but has seen his support dwindle amid growing public frustration with his rigid controls over the political scene, rampant corruption and rising social inequality.
Opinion polls show support for Putin between 40 and 50 percent. If he fails to get a majority of the vote, he will face a runoff on March 25, most likely against Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.
Putin announced his bid to reclaim the presidency in September and said he would then name Dmitry Medvedev, his protege and successor as president, his prime minister.
The job swap was seen as a show of cynical disrespect for democracy, fueling public anger that spilled into the open during the December protests.
Another mass rally is planned for this weekend. In a sign of the increasingly bold defiance of Putin's rule, opposition activists hoisted a giant "Putin Go Away" billboard to the top of a building across the river from the Kremlin on Wednesday. It took authorities more than an hour to remove it.
Putin initially played down the rallies and derided the participants as U.S. puppets working to undermine Russia. He later took a more conciliatory stance, in an apparent effort to split the opposition.
He promised Wednesday to give government jobs to some of his political opponents if he is elected.
Putin also instructed vote monitors to ensure strict observance of election rules. He previously has ordered web cameras installed in all polling stations in an effort to fend off opposition claims of vote rigging.
He warned local authorities that they would only damage his interests if they tried to manipulate the vote in his favor.
Putin also sought to reach out to young voters, saying that any attempt to impose restrictions on the Internet would make no sense and even promising to consider joining a social network. He said he hasn't had time for that and didn't want his aides making posts for him, but he promised to think about it.
The Moscow protests have been organized largely through social networks, which have been filled with criticism of Putin.
Unlike the iPad-toting, tweeting Medvedev, Putin has shown little visible interest in modern communications technologies and said a few years ago that he doesn't even need a cell phone.
Putin's four rivals have avoided criticizing him directly. Billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov, the only new face in the race, said Wednesday that Putin is "the only man who can somehow control the current inefficient system," but added that he could do better.
Opinion polls put Prokhorov, the 46-year-old owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, at the bottom of the list of contenders with support of around 4 percent, but he voiced hope that he could make it into the second round.
"Putin has been at the helm for 12 years and has done a lot of work, but it's time to stop," Prokhorov told a news conference.
Mansur Mirovalev contributed to this report.