TIKHVIN, Russia (AP) — Clad in a bomber jacket, Vladimir Putin walks briskly into a new railway car plant, greets workers and pushes a button to launch production.
The prime minister's tightly choreographed appearance at the factory in the northwestern city of Tikhvin got top billing on all three Kremlin-controlled networks — and points to his campaign strategy as he tries to recapture the presidency in March.
With the urban middle class turning against him, Putin is focusing increasingly on his traditional blue-collar and rural support base, which tends to get all of its news from state TV. Factory workers, farmers, public servants and the elderly form the backbone of the Russian leader's political following.
"The higher educated and the well-to-do tend to have a more critical attitude toward the government," said Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy head of the Levada Center, a leading independent polling agency. "They have more self-esteem, feel more involved in the political process and demand respect from the authorities."
Putin's troubles with the urban elites deepened dramatically in December as tens of thousands of Muscovites joined anti-Putin demonstrations to express outrage over fraud in a parliamentary election. A third big protest rally is set for this weekend.
Putin, who served eight years as president before shifting into the prime minister's job four years ago because of term limits, is seeking to win back the presidency on March 4 — meaning he could extend his hold on power until 2018.
Putin has cast the rally organizers as U.S. stooges working to weaken Russia and has tried to turn blue-collar workers against the urban protesters by portraying them as rich spoiled youth, contemptuous of the majority of Russian citizens.
"Never before has Putin taken the desperate step of stirring up confrontation in society under the slogan 'Russia against Moscow,'" said Liliya Shevtsova, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office. She and other analysts warn that such tactics could split society and raise tensions.
The news broadcasts of Putin directing the Tikhvin plant's opening are part of a daily pattern. Almost every evening, state television shows him meeting with pre-selected groups of ordinary Russians or giving orders to officials.
"It's intended to show that he is on top of things, follows all the developments, is always in charge," said Alexei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent think tank.
Putin's appearances also seem designed to show that all is well in the country. The pristine new plant in Tikhvin, for example, served to project an image of Russia as a future technological powerhouse, even though the economy continues to rely almost exclusively on exports of oil, gas and other raw materials.
The plant's workers were proud of their state-of-the-art robotic equipment and gleaming shop floors: "It's the most modern such plant not only in Russia, but in all of Europe," boasted worker Sergei Rozenbakh.
Even though the bulk of blue-collar workers continue to support Putin, a significant share back the communist and nationalist candidates and many are undecided. To win over wavering voters, Putin has countered the communists with promises to impose new taxes on the rich; he has appealed to nationalist sentiment with a pledge to toughen migration rules.
Four other candidates are running for president, including three members of parliament who have run against Putin in the past and whose parties have reached an accommodation with the Kremlin.
The strongest of the bunch is Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, but none of the veterans of past campaigns poses a serious challenge.
The only newcomer is billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov, the 46-year-old owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, but his support is limited to liberal-minded voters in big cities. Prokhorov has avoided directly criticizing Putin, and many believe the Kremlin approved his candidacy in the hope that it would provide a safe channel for opposition votes.
Opinion polls show Putin's ratings hovering below the 50 percent needed for a first-round victory in the March 4 election. If he fails to get a majority, he would face a runoff three weeks later.
Putin has refused to take part in debates. "It would be very risky for him to engage in a dialogue, his electorate may see it as a sign of weakness," Grazhdankin said. "It could negatively affect his image, making it no longer sacred."
His strategy appears to be to rely on the powerful propaganda tool of television to consolidate his base.
"Those who might vote for Putin are all watching TV," Grazhdankin said. "He's addressing the mass audience, and the language he has chosen fits the purpose."
As for the opposition, Putin appears willing to allow them to express their discontent on the Internet and hold their rallies, a sharp change of tack from recent years, when anti-government protests were quickly and brutally dispersed by police.
Shevtsova predicted that Putin may resort to harsh measures after the vote.
"For now, his team is acting in white gloves, but after the March election we may expect them to toughen their policy and tighten the screws," she said.