Vladimir Putin will reclaim the Kremlin's top job by winning two thirds of the vote in a March presidential election, but Russia's alpha-dog leader may face growing resentment against his rule, the last major poll before the vote showed on Friday.
Prime Minister Putin's aides hope a big win in the March 4 presidential election will take the sting out of an urban protest movement which casts him as an authoritarian leader who rules through a corrupt and tightly controlled political system.
Putin will easily avoid a humiliating second round run-off but on the eve of six more years in the Kremlin, Russia's 59-year old leader faces a crisis of confidence in his rule, Russia's biggest independent pollster said.
Putin will win 63-66 percent of the vote, far ahead of his closest rival, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who will win 15 percent of the vote, said Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center pollster.
We shall have a weak authoritarian national leader, Gudkov told reporters. Even Putin's victory in the first round will not change the situation.
After the disputed December 4 parliamentary election, Putin was clearly taken aback by the scale of the protests, initially dismissing opponents as the pawns of the West and even branding them chattering monkeys.
But as the seriousness of the challenge became evident, Putin swiftly changed tack, demoting the Kremlin's domestic political chief, berating minions in public for high prices and mobilising thousands of supporters for pro-Putin rallies.
The Levada poll showed 80 percent of Russians believed the former KGB spy would win his dream of returning to the Kremlin while 57 percent still viewed him as national leader, the title of choice for Putin among supporters.
Victory in the election will give Putin, cast as Russia's alpha-dog leader by U.S. diplomats in confidential reports to Washington, a six-year term in the Kremlin.
He could then run again for another term from 2018 to 2024, a quarter of a century since he was selected as the Kremlin's candidate to succeed an ailing Boris Yeltsin in late 1999. He would turn 72 on October 7, 2024.
Russian stocks rose 4 percent to a 7-month high, driven by greater confidence Putin will gain victory in the first round , averting weeks of further uncertainty . The rouble rose to the highest
level against the dollar since September when Putin announced he would run for president.
But the Levada poll also reflected a mood change against Putin, showing a significant minority of Russians are unhappy with the political system crafted by Putin in the 12 years since he rose to power.
We are seeing a growing crisis of confidence in the authorities which halted during the election campaign, it sort of froze, Gudkov told reporters, adding that Putin's popularity would fall after his inauguration as president in May.
He said that Putin's popularity could be hit hard if people felt that many of the election promises - including spending pledges of as much as 5 percent of Russia's $2.1 trillion 2012 gross domestic product - were not implemented.
The most likely scenario is an undulating growth and then slump of the protest mood and a growth in social tensions, said Gudkov.
More than one third of Russians supported street protests against vote stuffing though only 13 percent were willing to take part in such rallies. Just under one fifth said they supported the slogans Russia without Putin or Putin should go.
The protest leaders, a fragmented group of politicians, activists, journalists and bloggers, have called for a re-run of the December 4 parliamentary election which they say was rigged to hand victory to Putin's ruling party.
Levada, which has made a name for itself by publishing polls that contradict the Kremlin official view, is respected because its independence, though its last major poll before the December 4 parliamentary election was about four percentage points out.
It forecast Putin's United Russia party would win 53 percent, though official results show Putin's ruling party won 49.3 percent of the vote.
In the 2000 presidential election, Putin won 53 percent of the vote and in 2004 he won 71 percent of the vote, according to official results. His protege, Dmitry Medvedev, won 70 percent of the vote in 2008 when Putin was barred from running by constitutional limits.
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Maria Tsvetkova, editing by)