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When Russian republic leader Boris Yeltsin needed a vice-presidential running mate, he looked for a man who could appeal to communists without offending reformers.

He picked an Afghan war hero and Communist Party maverick, Alexander V. Rutskoi, who had saved Yeltsin from a challenge by hard-line lawmakers earlier this year.In three months, the 44-year-old retired air force colonel went from relative obscurity as a communist lawmaker to one of the brightest rising stars in Soviet politics.

Rutskoi (pronounced Root-SKOY) did it by seizing the middle ground between Yeltsin and President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and appealing to the party's rank-and-file.

Yelstin, who has led the Soviet Union's largest and most populous republic for a year as parliament chairman, now seeks the new post of president. The election is Wednesday.

Yeltsin's feud with Gorbachev, which has paralyzed Soviet politics for months, came to a boil in March when orthodox Russian Communists called a special Russian parliament session with the aim of dumping Yeltsin. For days, hard-liners and reformers were deadlocked over Yeltsin's fate.

Enter Rutskoi. The charismatic, bushy-mustached parliament deputy from Kursk, in the heart of Russia, rallied about 100 of his reform-minded communist colleagues and defected to Yeltsin's side.

The move deflated the hard-liners, gave Yeltsin a victory that later helped him win rapprochment with Gorbachev and brought Rutskoi and his new group - Communists for Democracy - into the spotlight.

"His former comrades-in-arms were shocked" by Rutskoi's defection, the radical weekly Moscow News reported. The military newspaper Red Star published letters from readers angry that Rutskoi had "betrayed the voters" who elected him to the Russian parliament in 1990.

But Rutskoi's Communists for Democracy now claims 3 million supporters in the 16.3 million-member party.

His rebellion made him a perfect choice for Yeltsin, who needs the support of party moderates to win the election and to govern the republic, which stretches from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

Support of servicemen is considered so important that all three leading candidates have chosen running mates with military credentials. Former Primer Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov chose Gen. Boris Gromov; and former Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin picked Ramazan Abdulatipov, a retired sergeant-major.

Rutskoi, a third-generation military officer, has been honored as a Hero of the Soviet Union for service in Afghanistan as a fighter pilot.

Rutskoi's experiences in Afghanistan and in the party have branded him a survivor, an essential element for popularity in Soviet politics.