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Ukraine's Presidential Candidates Prepare for Third-Round Debates

Ukraine's presidential candidates face off in their first and final debate of the repeat run-off presidential election Monday in the capital, Kiev. It is expected to be a lively two-hour debate.

There has only been one other nationally-televised live debate between Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko throughout the lengthy campaign, during which millions of Ukrainians tuned in to watch the two candidates trade accusations and attacks on everything from social programs to corruption and the economy.

The debate could prove more bitter, after last week's official confirmation that opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned during the campaign with one of the most highly-toxic dioxin chemicals known to scientists (pure TCDD).

Mr. Yushchenko has said he suspects government officials, without offering names, of being behind the poisoning. An official investigation into the incident is scheduled to be re-opened after the December 26 election.

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who initially was declared the winner of the second-round run-off, has denied a role in the poisoning and has wished his competitor good health.

Mr. Yanukovych has also warned that if the presidential re-run is, in his words, rigged again his supporters might take to the streets of Kiev to defend their votes, as opposition supporters did by the tens-of-thousands following the last round of the hotly-disputed poll.

With less than a week to go before the next election, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko is seen as the front-runner, while Prime Minister Yanukovych is struggling to distance himself from outgoing President Leonid Kuchma, who earlier chose Mr. Yanukovych to be his successor.

The new head of Ukraine's Central Election Commission (CEC), Yaroslav Davydovych, has pledged to ensure that this next round of run-off elections will be free and fair.

Mr. Davydovych has been in the post a little more than a week, after President Kuchma fired the last chief of the electoral commission, Sergei Kivalov, in a compromise deal reached with the political opposition. Mr. Davydovych has promised to exercise personal control over the electronic vote counting system.

Earlier this month, Ukraine's parliament approved changes to the country's electoral law and constitution as part of the political compromise aimed at ending the electoral stand-off. The measures followed a surprise Ukraine Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the previous presidential run-off election due to massive voter manipulation and fraud.

A U.S. congressional delegation is in Ukraine. Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher says recent meetings with Ukraine's leadership have convinced him that every measure has been taken to ensure the fairness of the next round.

Congressman Rohrabacher also rejects criticism from pro-government forces in Ukraine and officials in Russia that the United States supports the opposition candidate, Mr. Yushchenko over Mr. Yanukovych, who is seen as pro-Russian. He says the only thing the United States supports is a free and fair poll in Ukraine.

Ukraine's election strained relations between Russia and the West, with each accusing the other of interference. Russian President Vladimir Putin made two high-profile trips to Ukraine just days before the second-round run-off viewed by many as a virtual endorsement of Prime Minister Yanukovych.