MOSCOW (AP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday declared his intention to seek re-election next March, a vote he appears certain to win.
If Putin serves another six-year term that would run through 2024, it would make him the nation's longest serving ruler since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
The president chose to make the long-expected announcement at the GAZ automobile factory in Nizhny Novgorod, where he found an enthusiastic audience in the workers.
"I couldn't find a better place and moment for that," he said, to massive applause. "Thank you for your support, I will run for president."
Putin has been in power in Russia since 2000. He served two presidential terms in 2000-2008, then shifted into the prime minister's seat because of term limits, but continued calling the shots while his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, served as placeholder president. Medvedev had the presidential term extended to six years and then stepped down to let Putin reclaim the presidency in 2012.
While few doubted that Putin would run in the March 18 vote, a delay in announcing his bid was seen as part of the Kremlin's political maneuvering.
"It was necessary to ensure electoral mobilization," Dmitry Orlov, a political consultant close to the Kremlin, said in televised remarks.
The Kremlin has been worried about growing voter apathy, and the uncertainty about Putin's plans seemed intended to encourage public interest in the race.
Putin's approval ratings top 80 percent, making him certain to win an easy first-round victory. Blue-collar workers and state employees form the core of his support base.
"Thank you for your work, for your attitude to your jobs, your factory, your city and your country!" Putin told factory workers. "I'm sure that together we will succeed."
For months, Putin was fending off endless questions about his plans, fueling speculation about possible motives behind the delay. Some even speculated that Putin could step down and name a preferred successor.
Earlier Wednesday, Putin was asked about his intentions at a meeting with young volunteers in Moscow. He said he would decide shortly if he would seek another six-year term.
A stream of fawning comments from officials and lawmakers quickly followed his announcement.
"The decision gives us the feeling of certainty about tomorrow," said Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the lower house of parliament. "The decision was expected ... but we were already getting worried."
The upper house of parliament is expected to give the formal start to the election campaign later this month.
Veterans of past campaigns - Communist chief Gennady Zyuganov, ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and liberal leader Grigory Yavlinsky - all have declared their intention to run. They will likely be joined by Ksenia Sobchak, a star TV host who is the daughter of late former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who was Putin's boss in the 1990s.
The most visible Putin foe, Alexei Navalny, also wants to run, even though a conviction he calls politically motivated bars him from joining the campaign. He has organized a grassroots campaign and staged rallies across Russia to raise pressure on the Kremlin to let him register for the race.