In a scene at times reminiscent of a televised evangelical revival, Mikehil Saakashvili ended his campaign on January 4 in a packed Tbilisi sports arena with an appeal to voters to put aside pessimism about Georgia's troubled past and focus on a "strong Georgia" of the future.
With the slogan "Georgia without poverty" as a recurring refrain, the 40-year-old former president described a country in which villagers have easy access to business credit, schools will rival those of the West, and an employment program will assist inhabitants of Georgia's economically depressed regions. "The final victory will be a Georgia without poverty," he told the crowd.
Mid-speech, Saakashvili reached down from the stage to pick up a toddler boy whom he held, or who stood next to him, hand-in-hand, for most of the roughly 20-minute speech. "Tomorrow's victory will be our future generation," he proclaimed, lifting the boy to the audience's cheers.
The move carried upbeat symbolism in a culture with a near-compulsive reverence for children and sons.
In a meeting with foreign journalists after the rally, Saakashvili tried to maintain that mood, keeping his emphasis squarely on the positive in addressing some of the most controversial aspects of his nearly four years in office.
The police crackdown on opposition protestors on November 7 has loomed as among the most potentially damaging events to his administration's reformist reputation. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav110707.shtml
Nothing that some "people in the West" had been "very fast to jump to the stereotypes and clichés" about Georgia in response to the unrest that day, Saakashvili argued that his administration had "been forced to take steps that we were not born to do and we were not happy to do at all."
In Saakashvili's telling, the decision by Imedi television staff to temporarily shut down their station after its reopening de facto vindicated the government's claims against station founder Badri Patarkatsishvili.
Imedi was forcibly closed on November 7 in connection with allegations that Patarkatsishvili was using the station to stage a coup it reopened on December 12 amidst considerable international pressure, but closed again on December 26 after audio recordings the government claims show that Patarkatsishvili, now a presidential candidate, was planning another, post-election coup.
"You don't get many stations like this anywhere in the world, whose owner wants at the same time to be a killer and et cetera," he said, in reference to Patarkatsishvili.
Repeating earlier statements, Saakashvili largely tied November 7 to coup-crazed elements among the opposition; economic reasons that prompted many Georgians to take to the streets in November were addressed, though indirectly. Frequent complaints by opposition leaders and protestors about the absence of rule of law were not.
"It's not about us alienating the vast majority of people," he said. "But it's about us alienating some part of post-Soviet elite, it's about alienating people who suffered because of reforms, but there wasn't any other way to make this country without those reforms."
The debate over property rights formerly one of the most acerbic on the Georgian political scene was in part "a media frenzy," he said. "[I] didn't see anything terribly outrageous. I don't think private property is in danger in any way."
A win at the polls on January 5 would "be a good indication for the reforms," he added, later asserting that his support runs strongest "in Georgia's poorest regions."
For regions like Kakheti, center of Georgia's wine industry, the realization of that promise could go beyond pledges of expanded social welfare assistance. A Russian-imposed embargo against Georgian agricultural goods has added fuel to popular complaints against the government.
Saakashvili stressed, however, that he saw the early election as a chance for "a new mandate in foreign policy" toward Russia, which will elect a new president and parliament in 2008.
"We're not suicidal. We're not crazy in any way," he added, in reference to Georgia's currently strained ties with Moscow. "There is no reason on our side why we should have any tension with the Russians."
How those assertions will play at the ballot box remains a toss-up, however. Polls conducted recently by media and non-governmental organizations sympathetic to the opposition have shown a relatively tight race between Saakashvili and frontrunner opposition candidate Gachechiladze.
A poll commissioned by the Saakashvili campaign and made public on January 3, however, presents a different picture.
A survey of 1,200 respondents conducted between December 5 and 13 by US pollsters Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research showed the former president commanding 46 percent support among a sub-set of 846 respondents who said that they were likely to vote. The poll put Gachechiladze in second place among these voters with 16 percent support. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percent.
Under Georgian election law, a candidate must win by 50 percent plus one vote to win in the first round. The Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll predicted that in a potential second round Saakashvili would win "by a margin of 54-33%" against Gachechiladze.
For now, though, Saakashvili maintains that he's steering clear of predictions.
"Elections is [sic] an open process. There are many factors that affect elections," he said. "[W]e'll try to win in the first round. If the second round happens, then it happens."
But the 97 percent vote he garnered in the 2004 presidential elections, he conceded, is a thing of the past.
"I don't expect 97 percent tomorrow. Maybe NATO [integration plebiscite] will get 97 percent. Not me."
Elizabeth Owen is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.