YEKATERINBURG, Russia — President Boris N. Yeltsin wound up Russia's divisive election campaign Friday with a buoyant return to the city where he launched it, urging voters to give his erratic leadership and painful free-market reforms a second chance.
"We deserve a better life," he told 30,000 spectators at a riverside pop concert in his Ural Mountains home district. "Over five years, we have suffered a lot. But we also learned a great deal. Now we must not give way."
Russia's first popularly elected leader dominated the final day of campaigning for Sunday's presidential vote much as his forceful personality dominated the race itself.
His nine challengers, including Communist Party boss Gennady A. Zyuganov, were nowhere to be seen, and a televised debate in Moscow was canceled when just four minor contenders showed up.
Yeltsin and Zyuganov have crisscrossed the nation during the past four months, posing a stark choice between its reformist course and its Communist past.
Yeltsin reached 24 of its 89 regions, one fewer than his younger rival.
But the 65-year-old incumbent produced most of the drama.
Full of apologies and promises, he plunged into crowds, engaged unhappy voters face-to-face and saw his anemic poll ratings surge to even with or ahead of the more wooden Zyuganov, whose numbers remained stagnant.
While the president mobilized half a million concert-goers to Red Square on Wednesday, dashed to St. Petersburg the next day and finished up here, Zyuganov remained in Moscow limiting himself to a single midweek rally and declaring, with little conviction in his voice: "We have practically already won."
Polls indicated that the race is too close to call.
Yeltsin had the lead in most polls by as much as 12 percentage points, but he trailed Zyuganov 36% to 33% in the final survey by Nuzgar Betaneli, a leading pollster.
Both front-runners are expected to fall short of 50% on Sunday and be forced into a two-man runoff next month.
Yeltsin's comeback has been evident in Yekaterinburg, where he announced his reelection bid Feb. 15 in a rambling, defensive speech to unenthusiastic local dignitaries.
His approval rating in this industrial city, where he had always been a popular native son, had sunk by then to 10%.
But this week it had rebounded to 50%, and most people in Friday's crowd by the Isyet River listened to his three-minute speech with approving nods and smiles.
"I love him!" exclaimed Olga Semenyakina, 50, a theater manager. "I know he has made mistakes, but everyone makes mistakes, especially Russians. I don't trust a person who makes no mistakes. He can admit his mistakes and fix them."
Yeltsin walked to the concert from his Zil limousine down a long stairway in his shirt sleeves. He worked a line of well-wishers--shaking hands, chatting and signing autographs--and appeared onstage with his wife, two daughters and four grandchildren.
"I have two sources of strength--you and my family," he told the crowd, his booming baritone full of emotion. "You are my support. When times are tough, we will always be together. I feel your support. . . . Together we will be victorious!"
Some spectators were disappointed by Yeltsin's haste.
"He came just to check us off the list," grumbled Tanya Kalesnikova, 33, a social worker. "Five minutes with us and he was gone."
She said she helped elect Yeltsin five years ago but will vote against him Sunday.
"We expected a lot more," agreed her co-worker, Olga Karabaiyeva, 31, who added: "We don't want Zyuganov or the other guys. Who knows what kind of changes they would bring. We want stability."
Yeltsin this week boastfully predicted a first-round victory, alarming Kremlin aides who worried that this would discourage some supporters from voting.
Moscow city officials laid on free buses and trains to bring middle-class and upper-class voters home from suburban weekend dachas Sunday so they can get to the polls without fighting traffic.
Much of the suspense in Sunday's race revolves around who will finish third--Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the ultranationalist who is more likely to support Zyuganov in a runoff, or Alexander I. Lebed, the popular Afghan War veteran who is closer to Yeltsin.
Without uttering Lebed's name, Yeltsin tried to give the retired general a boost Friday by alluding to him as one who should be groomed for the presidency four years hence.
Yeltsin also said his Cabinet will be "seriously changed" for a second term to bring in "new people with fresh ideas . . . to carry out reforms in a new way."
In Chechnya, three days of voting for Russian president and a local parliament got underway Friday despite an agreement between separatist rebels and the Kremlin to wait until after Russian troops are withdrawn from the region.
The voting, organized by the region's Moscow-appointed Chechen leaders, threatened to restart a war that Yeltsin had halted this month to improve his reelection chances.
At least one vote-counting center came under rebel grenade attack.
Shogren reported from Yekaterinburg and Boudreaux from Moscow.