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YELTSIN GETS FLAT RECEPTION IN THE LOWER VOLGA REGION

The reception awaiting Boris Yeltsin at this decaying southern outpost of his fractious empire was as flat and tepid as the Volga River he sailed in on.

Nobody cheered when he stepped off the presidential cruiser Rossiya onto the hot, sunny dock. But Yeltsin is a practiced pol who loves to work a crowd, and he plunged in despite the lukewarm greeting.Later, in the city park, few even bothered to listen to his speech. Instead, people argued fiercely among themselves about the June presidential election.

"I'm for the party of Lenin," 75-year-old Mikhail Mitinsky proclaimed, squaring off against a man passionately defending democracy. "Yeltsin destroyed a great power and sold it off to the West."

Five weeks before the election, Yeltsin is plunging into territory dominated by Communist front-runner Gennady Zyuganov with a new message.

The Boris Yeltsin who campaigned along the Volga last week was not the fire-breathing anti-Communist of the early days of the race. He was Boris the Munificent, Czar of all Russians, lavishing kingly gifts on almost anyone who asked.

Before Yeltsin left for Astrakhan and Volgograd, he was warned it wouldn't be smooth sailing. He was pulling even with Zyuganov, but it looked as if his Red Scare strategy was beginning to backfire.

Important supporters were urging moderation and warning that the country could be heading for civil war. Aides were worried about the provincial heartland, where the June 16 election will be decided.

Yeltsin needed something to woo voters wavering between two Russias: the democratic market economy with its new and daunting demands and the old secure, paternal, centralized state.

"Now the hard part begins," campaign adviser Anatoly Chubais said on the eve of Yeltsin's three-day journey. "Now we have to work the other side's turf."

The trip last week to the two main cities on the lower Volga was a turning point.

Yeltsin was by turns fatherly and stern, as a good king should be. He didn't even mention the Communists. Instead, he dipped into the treasure of the realm with costly decrees and promises.

He clucked in sympathy when people told him how poor they've become. He promised things would get better soon. He promised to take care of them.

Wading into a crowd in Volgograd, he hoisted children in his arms and kissed housewives on the cheek. He granted tax relief on the spot to some Afghan war veterans and gave 10 billion rubles to the local university for a new science library.