MOSCOW, Nov 28 (Reuters) The party that for a decade has entertained Russians with its brand of anti-Western nationalism is expected to struggle in this Sunday's parliamentary election.
And the reason: President Vladimir Putin has, election analysts say, stole its clothes.
The latest opinion poll this week gave the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) led by firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky 7 per cent support: right on the threshold needed to qualify for seats in parliament.
Not even the recruitment of Andrei Lugovoy -- a hero for nationalists since Britain said it wanted to try him for the murder of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko -- to the party's list of candidates has revived its flagging fortunes.
The problem for the LDPR appears to be that voters no longer need to turn to it for pithy nationalist rhetoric when they can get the same from their president.
''I would describe Putin as a non-funny ... version of Zhirinovsky,'' Leonid Sedov, senior researcher with pollster the Levada Centre, told Reuters.
''He borrowed a lot from Zhirinovsky in the way he operates.
''He also borrowed from Zhirinovsky his anti-Western rhetoric, to say nothing of employing salty phrases,'' he added.
''And this crudeness ... this slightly mischievous behaviour, also appeals to some voters.'' SNOTTY NOSES Putin is running in the parliamentary vote as No. 1 on the election list of United Russia, the party polls predict will pick up at least 60 per cent of the vote and leave its rivals trailing far behind.
Last week Putin told his supporters foreign governments were sponsoring his opponents in the polls to weaken Russia and carry out ''dirty tricks'' against it. He said opposition activists were ''slinking'' through foreign embassies seeking their funds.
On Monday, Putin accused Washington of plotting to undermine the polls and said Russia must defend itself to discourage others from ''poking their snotty noses'' in its affairs.
It was Zhirinovsky who pioneered this kind of talk long before anyone in the Kremlin adopted it.
In the 1990s he said he looked forward to a day when Russian soldiers would ''wash their boots'' in the Indian Ocean. He has said the United States should cede Alaska to Russia and has called Britain's Queen Elizabeth a ''bandit''.
One televised debate ended with him throwing a glass of juice over his opponent and he was involved in a brawl in parliament.
For a brief period in the 1990s he was viewed as one of the leading challengers for the presidency. His party is the fourth biggest in parliament, with 36 of the 450 seats.
Zhirinovsky says he is in opposition to the Kremlin and is reaching out to voters whose lives have not improved under Putin's eight-year presidency.
But the LDPR has consistently voted with pro-Kremlin parties on key legislation. Its critics say its anti-establishment stance is bluster to hide the fact it is a Kremlin puppet.
Zhirinovsky has denied any arrangement with the Kremlin.
''The LDPR is not in opposition,'' Sedov said. ''LDPR voters are pretty conformist, they accept Putin's regime ... namely because Putin is just so similar to Zhirinovsky.'' On a campaign stop last week in the village of Manturovo in the Kursk region of western Russia, Lugovoy, a former secret police bodyguard and the party's star recruit, was trying to drum up votes.
He poured scorn on the British authorities, and told voters he was a happy father of four and was investing in local pig and cattle farms.
But the response was lukewarm. ''I liked Lugovoy, he is such a sweet person,'' said Nina, one of the villagers. ''But I would rather vote United Russia.'' REUTERS PD DS1501