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GORBACHEV FIGHTS REJECTION - AND REALITY

The lonely figure of Mikhail S. Gorbachev exits unnoticed from the VIP arrival lounge to a single black Volga idling on the airport tarmac here in the gathering dusk of a late-spring evening.

Before he ducks into the chauffeured sedan that is a perquisite of his hopeless bid to regain the presidency, he turns to wave toward the terminal although no one is watching.Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Time magazine's Man of the Decade. A name once synonymous with hope and freedom. The revered object of Gorbymania. Liberator of millions.

History may judge the 65-year-old Gorbachev more justly, but in his own country the father of "perestroika" and "glasnost" is a nobody.

And as he perseveres through insults and indifference in a quixotic quest to win back Russia's highest office, even admirers of one of the most influential political leaders of this century say he has lost touch with reality and succumbed to an undignified end.

"Perhaps he would not be a bad alternative, but he has no chance," observed noted writer and former dissident Vladimir N. Voinovich. "People here not only don't support him. They hate him."

Communists resent Gorbachev for breaking their 70-year monopoly on power and turning on the party that bestowed him its highest post.

Nationalists despise the former president for the liberalization that allowed pieces of the empire to proclaim independence, destroying the superpower Soviet Union and loosening its stranglehold on Eastern Europe.

Democrats sometimes credit Gorbachev with dismantling the dictatorship that held the Soviet Union together. But they also tend to hold him responsible for the social and economic collapse that followed. He may have initiated the reform process, they reason, but he made a mess of it.

Undaunted by polls that give him no more than 1 percent support from the electorate, Gorbachev insisted in an interview that the Russian people are coming back to his side.

"The situation is changing for the better. Until the autumn of 1993, people seemed to have forgotten about Gorbachev," says the once-celebrated leader who often refers to himself in the third person. "Our people needed time to decide whether Gorbachev had been right or not. . . . Now they know."

He has been spat at, slapped and heckled on the hustings but dismisses those incidents as unrepresentative of public opinion.

He has been counseled by well-intentioned supporters - including his wife, Raisa - to avoid a doomed drive for power but rejects that advice as pessimistic and shortsighted.

He has been virtually ignored by the media he freed from decades of Communist censorship.