VLAD IN '96?

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While presidential hopefuls in the U.S. are still dipping their toes in the shallow end of the pool, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russia's most colorful Kremlin wannabe, has characteristically plunged into his country's presidential sweepstakes with a cannonball dive. The ultranationalist, who lately has been busy cheering for the Russian forces assaulting Chechnya, today told voters in Russia's Far North that he would challenge President Boris Yeltsin in next year's elections. Zhirinovsky, whose approval ratings began to fall even before the Chechnya conflict sank Yeltsin's, added that he supports early elections to hasten the power transition.