ATHENS — ATHENS -- It is being billed as the fight of the dinosaurs, a titanic struggle between two ancient Greeks.
Exonerated from charges of corruption and phone tapping, ailing former leader Andreas Papandreou, 74, is attempting to make a political comeback in today's Greek elections by ousting his rival of 30 years, Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis, 75.
A desperate, American-style TV campaign against Mr. Papandreou seems to have had little effect on average Greeks who -- if the polls can be trusted -- believe by a slim majority that it is a time for a change.
Mr. Mitsotakis' New Democracy camp is praying for a last-minute surge and is counting on its latest TV ad that raises "The Dimitra Question": It shows a sick and shaky Mr. Papandreou (who has recently undergone triple bypass surgery) and asks, "If you vote for him, who is going to run this country?"
Then the image fades into that of Mr. Papandreou's wife, Dimitra, a former air hostess 35 years his junior, whom he married in a wave of scandal shortly before his Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) government was voted out in 1989.
Many believe she is poised to become one of the major behind-the-scenes forces if Mr. Papandreou becomes prime minister.
James Carville, who directed the Clinton presidential campaign, has coordinated the anti-Papandreou campaign with a slick packaging never before used in Greek politics. He also had Mr. Mitsotakis crisscross the country, making dozens of speeches in an effort to underline his opponent's frailty -- Mr. Papandreou has made only four halting campaign speeches.
Unfortunately for Mr. Mitsotakis, however, the electorate seems more concerned with throwing out the harsh austerity measures to which he has subjected them, including a price and wage freeze.
Split forced elections
Antonis Samaras, 42, a graduate of Harvard Business School, had been New Democracy's great hope, its favorite protege and youngest foreign minister. But he split earlier this year to form his own party, Political Spring, taking several politicians with him. This cost New Democracy its tiny majority in Parliament and forced early elections.
New Democracy supporters are furious -- and have shown their anger by pelting Mr. Samaras with oranges and eggs as he has toured the country. They have little time for arguments that Mr. Mitsotakis himself made a similarly ruinous split with Mr. Papandreou's father to bring down his government in the early 1960s.
Mr. Mitsotakis' people charge that Mr. Samaras robbed them of the chance of recouping political capital lost during 3 1/2 years of government.
Leading up to the elections that had been scheduled for mid-1994, they had planned the kind of political "sweeteners" traditional in Greek politics, such as expanding the civil service with thousands of sinecures and giving generous public-sector wage increases.
The Mitsotakis camp says it had to engage in tough austerity measures to comply with European Community requirements and to keep $5 billion a year that the EC hands over to its poorest member. Mitsotakis aides say they already have turned around the economy -- last week's inflation figures were 12.5 percent, the lowest in 25 years.
They still believe they could scrape through today if Mr. Samaras fails to gain the 3 percent of votes needed to win a seat. This weekend's polls showed him dropping from 7 percent to around 4 percent. Mr. Samaras hopes to win about 5 percent and to position himself to make a serious challenge in the next elections.
The Macedonia issue
He carefully chose the issue on which he split with the New Democrats: that of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. It is so emotion-laden that many fear it could drag Greece into Yugoslavia's civil war if it is mishandled.
Greece has been blocking EC recognition of the newly independent republic and its full entry into the United Nations unless it calls itself by another name. Greece argues that the name Macedonia belongs to a northern Greek province and its use elsewhere implies territorial claims on northern Greece.
The rest of the EC has been exasperated by Greece's stand. Mr. Mitsotakis had moved to a compromise and was about to accept some sort of hyphenated name with Macedonia part of it. But Mr. Samaras insisted on standing firm.
Mr. Papandreou has hinted at a similar firm stand, something he knows is popular. But PASOK insiders believe he simply would work out a different compromise -- probably allowing the rest of the world to recognize it as Macedonia but not doing so himself.
If Mr. Papandreou wins today's election, it is widely believed he would see it as his first step toward becoming Greek president when George Karamanlis, 85, steps down in mid-1995.
Because of his frail health -- he is said to be able to work only an hour a day -- Mr. Papandreou probably would delegate many of his Greek and EC duties to others. He would almost certainly stick with most of the pro-European Mitsotakis policies so as to continue the benefits of EC membership. Certainly the shrill, anti-American, socialist pioneer of the past was missing from the campaign trail.
Rumors already abound that a victorious Mr. Papandreou would seek revenge and drag his old rival through the kind of humiliating court case he just survived.
Already, a tape is circulating of Mr. Mitsotakis' daughter giving orders to and praising a self-confessed phone tapper for carrying out work for her.
FACTS ON GREEK ELECTION
* AT STAKE: Unicameral Parliament's 300 seats.
* PARTIES: Largest of the 27 parties fielding candidates are the conservative New Democracy Party, led by Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis; and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), headed by Andreas Papandreou. A party must receive at least 3 percent of the vote to get a seat.
* VOTING: Voting is compulsory. About 6.5 million people are expected to vote. First results are expected shortly after polls close, with the winner declared early tomorrow and official results Tuesday.