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Palestinian Presidential Campaign Winds Down Toward Sunday's Vote

Campaigning for the Palestinian presidential race is winding down, with Friday the last day for candidates to take their message to the voters.

The campaign is nearing its close and Mahmoud Abbas, candidate for the ruling, mainstream Fatah party, seemed intent on making the most of it and was met with cheering crowds in the West Bank city of Hebron this week.

Mr. Abbas has been rallying support with increasingly tough rhetoric, praising Palestinian militants and promising voters he will not give up Palestinian rights in any future peace talks with Israel. On Thursday, however, he reiterated that peace talks will resume after the elections.

Opinion polls give Mr. Abbas a commanding lead ahead of Sunday's vote.

His closest rival is independent candidate, Mustafa Barghouti, a physician and long-time human rights activist.

Dr. Barghouti took his campaign to Gaza this week and winds up his appeal to voters in Hebron. Barghouti campaign aides say the turnout at rallies has been very good and they are optimistic about results on voting day.

But, Dr. Barghouti has faced difficulties in getting around to meet voters. He was detained by Israeli police for several hours while campaigning in East Jerusalem in late December. The Israelis said the candidate did not have proper permission to be in the city. Dr. Barghouti told his supporters he will not let Israeli interference stop him.

"But regardless of whatever [they do], they beat me, they arrested me, they stopped me at checkpoints but nothing will stop us," he said.

But, an Israeli political analyst says the candidates have been mainly hampered by an unfair advantage enjoyed by Mahmoud Abbas, who has the political machinery of the Fatah party behind him. Michael Widlanski of Hebrew University says Mr. Abbas has tried to minimize any opposition - first and foremost by getting his most serious rival, Marwan Barghouti, who is in an Israeli jail, to withdraw his candidacy.

"He's running scared now and he's been running scared for a few weeks," said Michael Widlanski. "First of all he worked very hard to make sure Marwan Barghouti would not run in the elections. He was very scared of that. And he's doing his best to make sure that the next most popular candidate Mustafa Barghouti, to make sure he does not get very much press coverage."

Professor Widlanski said none of the six rival candidates to Mahmoud Abbas has gotten any significant coverage in Palestinian media. And, he says that even though all the candidates have gotten a chance to appear on Palestinian television, he is not sure that will really make a difference for them.

But, talking with Palestinian voters over the past week - there are indications they do intend to have their say.

One such voter, Bilal Devush turned out at an Abbas rally in Hebron on Wednesday, despite the driving wind and rain.

Mr. Devush said it is more than a question of choosing a new leader it is an affirmation that the people themselves are having their voices heard.

And, that chance for voters comes on Sunday.