MOSCOW — Russia's presidential campaign sputtered to an uneasy close Monday as an ailing Boris N. Yeltsin spoke to the public for the first time in nearly a week and Communist challenger Gennady A. Zyuganov sought to make the incumbent's health a decisive issue.
By law, campaigning for Wednesday's runoff between the two men, who ran far ahead of eight other first-round candidates June 16, ended at midnight Monday. Both camps appeared eager to get on with the decisive vote, a momentous choice about the kind of post-Soviet society Russians want.
After crisscrossing the country this winter and spring and appealing directly to voters, Yeltsin and Zyuganov have stayed mainly in Moscow for the last two weeks and run subdued, tactical second-round campaigns--the president low on energy, the challenger out of funds.
Yeltsin, who has canceled every public appearance since Wednesday because of what aides called laryngitis and a cold, made a final televised appeal urging voters to stay the course of his painful free-market reforms.
"Those who cast their ballots for Communists on June 16 voted not for a return to the past but against the hardships of the new life," he said. "I understand. Many things in our life make my heart ache. . . . But if on July 3 it is our resentment and fatigue that vote instead of us, we are in for trouble."
The 65-year-old president, seated stiffly behind a desk, looked pale and tired but spoke firmly during the three-minute address, which his office said was taped Monday. In separate TV footage, he was shown and heard discussing the election with Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin.
Asked whether Yeltsin had suffered a recurrence of the heart trouble that hospitalized him twice last year, Chernomyrdin said: "The president shook my right hand and nearly tore it off. Don't worry. Everything is all right."
But as doubts lingered about Yeltsin's fitness to govern for four more years, Zyuganov insisted that an independent medical team examine the president.
"On the eve of the . . . voting, the head of state, seeking another term, is keeping away from the public," he told a news conference. "This is very alarming. . . . The country itself is on the verge of a heart attack."
Later, in his last televised pitch, the Communist leader chided Yeltsin for refusing to debate him but added that there was no point in insisting because "he's in bad shape."
"The main point of disagreement between us," Zyuganov said, "is that I stand for a unique, strong, respected, decent Russia . . . and he is ready to turn the country into a panhandler in the lobby of the Group of 7 [industrial democracies]. . . . You will be choosing between a strong Russia and a colonial administration."
Out of 74.5 million votes cast in the first round, Yeltsin, who became Russia's first democratically elected leader as the Soviet Union was crumbling five years ago, garnered 26.6 million votes to Zyuganov's 24.2 million.
In the scramble for the remaining votes, Yeltsin scored with a quick endorsement from Alexander I. Lebed, the third-place finisher, who became his new security advisor. Liberal economist Grigory A. Yavlinsky and ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the next two finishers, stopped short of backing Yeltsin but urged their supporters to reject the Communists.
Zyuganov reacted by silencing the most radical voices of his coalition, pledging not to confiscate private property and promising to invite leading reformers into a coalition government.
The net result of this high-level politicking appears to be a gain for Yeltsin. He leads in all voter surveys--although by a margin as narrow as four percentage points.
But polls before the first round overstated Yeltsin's lead, and subsequent ones are not fresh enough to reflect the new concern about his health. As the president dropped from view, Chernomyrdin admitted Saturday: "We are not in the grip of euphoria at all. There's a general feeling of concern."
The president's televised ads over the past week have featured testimonials from pro-Yeltsin voters in rural areas, where he did poorly in the first round. The challenger's ads show young pro-Communist voters; youthful voters were not Zyuganov's strongest area of support.
After a frenetic first round of televised stumping and pop concerts, however, the second-round campaign was a fizzle.
About 100 Zyuganov supporters, minus Zyuganov, gathered in the rain by a World War II memorial Monday evening in Moscow's only display of political fervor in the final hours of the campaign.
Yeltsin also missed the last event in his honor--a party for tens of thousands of voters Sunday at Moscow's Lenin Central Stadium. The dominant figure towering over the rock bands, folk singers, modern dancers and flame swallowers was a statue of Soviet founder Vladimir I. Lenin, ignominiously clad in a hat made from folded newspaper. A poster around his neck read, "I'm voting for Yeltsin!"