By Gleb Bryanski
TIKHVIN, Russia (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin followed in the footsteps of Russia's tsars when he interrupted his presidential election campaign to seek the blessing of the Virgin of Tikhvin, a Byzantine icon which believers say works miracles.
Legend has it that all the tsars except one sought the Virgin's blessing before ascending the throne. The one who did not, Nicholas II, turned out to be the last, killed by revolutionaries in 1918.
Putin has now visited the icon in a 16th-century monastery five times. His latest visit to the monastery east of St Petersburg was in January, before he revved up his campaign for Sunday's election and erased any doubt he will win convincingly.
Since then the prime minister appears to have consolidated core voters in the provinces, supporters have staged rallies in Moscow and a first-round victory looks likely, even though he faces big opposition protests in Moscow and St Petersburg.
"He did not just sit in a trench, as was proposed by some of his advisers. He launched a successful counter-attack," Valery Fyodorov, the head of the VTsIOM polling agency said.
He cited a 15-percentage-point rise in Putin's poll rating since December as evidence of a successful campaign.
Putin's victory was never in doubt against four rivals who offer little competition. But he now looks on course to win more than 50 percent of the votes Sunday, avoiding a runoff that could have undermined his claim to lead the whole nation.
A first-round win might also encourage Putin to talk tough with the opposition and avoid offering them concessions.
The campaign has been led since the end of December by Vyacheslav Volodin, the only man in Putin's close entourage who had practical experience of the tough election battles of the anarchic 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"For some time it seemed that it would be hard for Putin to score a convincing victory. This danger is now gone," said Igor Kholmanskikh, a tank factory manager who offered to bring his workers to Moscow to deal with protesters.
Friday was the last day of campaigning. Putin's campaign focused on core voters, a series of newspaper articles spelling out his plans and rallies to counter the opposition protests. All bore Volodin's hallmark.
Putin, 59, lambasted the West in time-honored fashion but dropped the kind of macho stunts he has so often used in the past to attract voters, such as horse riding bare chested.
"Even Putin's core supporters are now more critical of him (over such stunts). It would have been ridiculous to appeal to them by showing a bare torso," said Fyodorov, whose polling agency is widely seen as close to the Kremlin.
Only once during the campaign did Putin revert to type, jumping into a bobsleigh without a helmet and making a descent at the Olympic team training ground outside Moscow.
The former KGB spy's campaign took him to various corners of Russia to meet supporters, visit factories and take charge of meetings with ministers and local officials.
In his home town of St Petersburg, more than 20 stocky football fans greeted Putin with chants of "Russia, Russia" before sitting down with him to drink beer and eat crayfish.
Putin, who was born to a working-class family, seemed at ease with the fans, even when they discussed the protests.
"What is happening now does not make me angry or sad, does not discourage me. This is what I wanted," he said.
Despite his comments, sources close to the government say he was taken by surprise by the scale of the protests. He also looked out of touch when he insulted the protesters on national television, comparing them to chattering monkeys.
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Putin's opponents, mainly well-educated Russians from large cities, responded by mocking him on the Internet with satirical videos, cartoons and jokes.
Putin's team say the harshness of these attacks, and the aggressive tone of some opposition leaders and commentators who have described people who support him as "cattle" or "canned anchovies," had rallied core voters.
"The opposition protests have helped us consolidate the silent part of society which takes for granted that Vladimir Putin is their leader," said parliamentary deputy Vyacheslav Lysakov, a member of Putin's campaign staff.
Putin avoided taking part in televised debates with other candidates and seemed most at ease when with a crowd of sympathizers, clearly in control at the kind of staged event he has used as a platform for years.
After Putin was booed at a sports event last year, security was tightened around public events he attended. A few residents in the Urals village of Roza complained they had been excluded from a list of 150 people selected to meet Putin.
The village, next to an open coal mine, is being destroyed by cracks, landslides and floods. Some want to leave.
"Living here is like sitting on a powder keg," said Tamara Alimova, standing in the cold with other villagers outside a school where Putin met residents. Police told them to go home.
Putin was in Roza on the day of a big opposition rally in Moscow. Portraying himself as a man of action, his dressing down of junior bureaucrats was shown on nationwide television.
"We just went to see a house. I'd say that all of you gathered here should be ashamed of yourselves," he said, promising new housing for 3,800 people in the danger zone.
Putin appeared to be in good shape throughout the campaign and only once seemed tired, at a meeting in the far eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, where he stuttered during a speech.
"The campaign was stormy but I hope there will be no more dirt thrown. I really hope so. It's coming to a close, thank God," Putin told his campaign staff.