Putin anointed Viktor Zubkov as a strong candidate hours after parliament approved his nomination as premier. Zubkov's lightning-fast ascent from obscurity is seen as part of the Russian leader's plan to maintain tight control during a bruising election season and keep a hand on Russia's reins after he steps down.
"A year, a year and a half ago, people were saying that we have an empty field and there's nobody to choose from. Now they name a minimum of five people who can realistically aspire to be elected president of Russia in March 2008," Putin said in televised remarks at his residence in the resort city of Sochi.
"If another realistic candidate emerges, then Russian citizens will be able to choose among several people," he said. And Putin said Zubkov "said the right thing" when he told journalists a day earlier that he would not rule out a presidential bid if he does a good job as premier.
The president stopped short of endorsing Zubkov over any other potential successor. But he mentioned nobody else by name and praised the new premier at length as a hardworking, honest man who has done productive work throughout a diverse career. He called him a "real professional, a brilliant administrator."
The remarks put Putin's stamp of approval on Zubkov, vaulting him to a prominent position in a race that had been dominated by two government officials who have been groomed for the role for over a year, Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev.
Putin muddied the waters Wednesday when he dismissed Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and nominated Zubkov, a Soviet-era state farm director and Communist Party official who has kept a low profile in six years heading Russia's anti-money-laundering agency.
Loyal lawmakers quickly fell into lockstep, lavishing Zubkov with praise after the nomination was announced. The State Duma, the 450-seat lower house that is dominated by the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party, confirmed Zubkov on Friday in a 381-47 vote.
Putin, who is barred from seeking a third straight term as president, had been expected to replace Fradkov with a more prominent figure -- most likely Ivanov, a former defense minister -- who would then have been tapped to run as the chosen successor.
Putin's popularity, combined with the tight control he has established over the broadcast media and the political landscape, mean that a candidate with his support would be likely to win easily.
Amid the praise, he made it clear that Zubkov should take nothing for granted.
"He still needs to work," Putin said with a wry smile.
The surprise nomination and tantalizing comments were par for the course for Putin, who has kept Russia and the world guessing about his plans. He has said he will step down as scheduled following the March vote, but has indicated he will retain influence afterward and has not ruled out a return to the presidency in 2012.
Analysts said Zubkov is key to those plans.
Much older than both Ivanov and Medvedev and loyal to Putin, he could serve as a figurehead president while the real power would belong to Putin, either as a strong prime minister or pulling the strings from the shadows.
And Zubkov would not stand in the way of a Putin comeback in 2012 -- or even sooner. "If Zubkov is told that it's time for him to step down, he will immediately do that," political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said. "He will do what he's told to do."
Zubkov displayed his loyalty in remarks to parliament, saying his priorities would be those set out in Putin's state-of-the-nation speeches. The government's main task is to "provide for the stability of economic and social development," he told lawmakers.
He signaled no major policy changes, stressing the need to maintain stability -- a magic word in Russia after the disorder that followed the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Zubkov called for a more robust battle against corruption and pledged to boost the defense industry and Russia's struggling farms. He hinted some unpopular ministers could be fired -- a move many Russians believe is long overdue.
Putin had been expected to replace his prime minister after December parliamentary elections. Analysts said he stepped in earlier to avert a battle among powerful factions.
"Putin needed to show to all conflicting groups that he pulls all the strings and neutralize them," Oreshkin said.
Along with his loyalty, Zubkov's knowledge of Russia's shadowy financial flows could help Putin maintain control over rivals.
"Planning to leave the Kremlin, Putin is faced with the practically impossible task of preventing a fierce fight in the terrarium of his allies," political analyst Alexander Golts said in the weekly Yezhednevny Zhurnal. "Viktor Zubkov's arrival is a clear attempt to solve this problem."
Putin said as much Friday, lamenting that he had hoped to keep the Cabinet in place until after the presidential vote but that the Cabinet had become distracted from its work.
"Unfortunately, members of the government .... slowed their work. They began to think more about their personal fate after the elections."
"I would like the government ... to hammer away nonstop, like a Swiss clock, up to the elections and right after the elections," he said. "I need this to be a hardworking, fine-tuned and well functioning mechanism."
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.