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Ukraine's Presidential Candidates Courting Votes

Ukrainians got their first comprehensive introduction to the two candidates vying to be their next president during a nationally-televised debate in the capital, Kiev. Debate aired less than a week before the tightly-contested second-round run-off.

With both candidates virtually tied heading into Sunday's scheduled run-off, the debates were viewed as the last best chance to woo voters and perhaps for one candidate to stake a claim as the front-runner.

But independent political analyst Ivan Lozowy in Kiev says neither Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, nor opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko scored a major upset during the debate, leaving the political terrain, in his words, "mixed."

"[Mr.] Yanukovich did better than expected, but overall [Mr.] Yuschenko did a little better," he said.

But Mr. Lozowy says the real test is whether that perceived win actually helps or hurts one candidate more than the other at the polls this Sunday.

"The big problem is that people are already decided pretty much," he said. "They make their decisions pretty quickly - [that is] I would say the majority - and I do not think the debates really impacted on people all so much."

But Mr. Lozowy says he has been surprised by the high level of interest surrounding the debate among the general population. In the capital, Kiev, most restaurants and bars were packed to capacity, as people joined to watch the two candidates in their first and only televised debate of the campaign.

For more than an hour, the two candidates traded accusations and attacks on everything from social programs, to corruption and the economy.

Mr. Yuschenko accused the prime minister of serving wealthy business interests at the expense of ordinary Ukrainians. And in one of the more memorable statements of the debate, he said the race was not a conflict between two Viktors, in reference to their names, but a conflict between two world views.

In turn, Mr. Yanukovich criticized his opponent for saying Ukraine needed new leadership. In another highly-quoted remark, he said, "The new leadership is already here, will not leave, and there is no way to expel it."

The debate only aired in Ukraine, but interest in the election is high in Europe and the United States, where leaders see it as a possible sign of Ukraine's future course. Opposition leader Yuschenko is widely regarded as being more pro-reform and western-oriented, whereas Prime Minister Yanukovich looks to retain traditional eastern ties, especially with Russia.