ALI AKBAR DAREINI
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Candidates for president of Iran wrapped up their final full day of campaigning on Wednesday, reacting to a last-minute surge for a moderate cleric at the expense of conservatives.
The candidate, Hasan Rowhani, ,moved to the forefront after another pro-reform candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, pulled out on Tuesday. Conservatives were still fielding several competing candidates.
Rowhani gained key endorsements from two former presidents, both popular among reformers -- Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. Hasan Khomeini, grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic republic, is also said to be backing Rowhani.
Official campaigning ends 24 hours before the polls open early Friday for voting to choose a successor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who cannot run for a third term in office.
Rowhani, 64, rejects Ahmadinejad's combative approach in world affairs and sides with Rafsanjani's view that Iran can maintain its nuclear program and ease tensions with the West at the same time.
The West has imposed several rounds of punishing economic sanctions over Iran's suspect nuclear program, collapsing the currency and causing shortages and hardships.
Four conservatives and a hard-liner remain in the race, opposing Rowhani. Aref's exit is seen as a reformist decision to unite, while multiple conservative candidates might split their side's vote.
If no one wins a majority in Friday's election, there would be a runoff with the top two finishers.
Conservatives are weighing their options urgently in the wake of the reformist unity move. There are calls on some candidates to drop out, but so far no one has agreed to exit the race.
Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the apparent front-runner among the conservatives, joins former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati and former Guard chief Mohsen Rezaei in the race. Top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili is the most hard-line candidate in the race.
"To win the upcoming election, (conservatives) have to come forward with a single candidate. This is necessary," conservative politician Habibollah Asgarowladi told Iranian media Wednesday.
Velayati denied rumors that he would leave. "I won't quit the race," he said in a statement. Rezaei also told reporters that withdrawing from the election was out of question.
Hossein Shariatmadari, a hard-line strategist and a representative of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said multiple conservative candidate lineup is a recipe for defeat.
"Why and under what logical . justification would a multiple-candidate format not change?" he wrote. "Isn't a single (conservative) candidate better than votes divided among them?"
Moderates interpreted the scramble as a sign of weakness.
"The frustration of hard-liners shows they are losing," analyst Saeed Leilaz said. "Hard-liners considered themselves the winners. They never thought that moderates would show this degree of wisdom and solidarity."
Former President Khatami called election a moderate crucial to Iran's future. He said support for the reformists is also coming from prisons, where many Iranian dissidents have been incarcerated following riots over Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009.
"Political prisoners . wrote from their cells urging us to vote," he said.
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