POLISH voters go to the polls Sunday in the first round of a presidential election in which, for months, the real race has been for second place.
What once looked like the end of an era for President Lech Walesa, anticommunist hero of the Gdansk shipyards, now looks like an opportunity for him to ''save Poland'' again.
Alexander Kwasniewski of the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) remains the front-runner and his lead has recently increased to 32 percent of the vote. But now Mr. Walesa has pulled ahead of the rest of the pack of 15 candidates, with support of 26 percent, according to the same poll. This comeback from 12 percent support in September makes him the candidate who appears likeliest to face Mr. Kwasniewski in the expected second round of voting Nov. 19 - and to win.
A large majority - two-thirds to three-fourths of the electorate - simply do not want an ex-communist in the presidency, analysts agree. Kwasniewski's Democratic Left Alliance already leads the ruling coalition in parliament. To have an ex-communist in the presidency, too, would be just too much, they say.
Poles are concerned that this would mean that old-style party patronage would dangerously slow their country's economic transformation. They have seen Walesa as a check on such patronage and cronyism and are likely to want to keep him in such a role.
There is also the question of Poland's continuing Westernization: The serious candidates, including Kwasniewski, all favor - at some level at least - Polish integration into NATO and the European Union, and continuing economic reform. But not all observers are convinced that the rest of Kwasniewski's party is completely with him.
Of all the post-communist parties in the former East bloc of Central and Eastern Europe, the SLD is arguably the most democratic, and the broadest, including a range from entrepreneurial free-marketeers to unreconstructed communists: a real ''big tent'' party.
Kwasniewski himself fits the mold of the well-turned-out ''smart politician.'' He has modeled his campaign on Bill Clinton's, bus trips and all. He plays down his communist past with the slogan ''Let's Choose the Future.''
The Polish post-communists, more than their counterparts elsewhere, also include members strongly opposed to NATO and in favor of closer links to Moscow.
Yet his party appears, on balance, more committed to market reforms than the more populist, culturally conservative, fragmented parties of the Polish right.
But the party still is run but the same Communist officials who may not have changed ideologically, says Roland Freudenstein, Warsaw representative of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the think tank affiliated with Germany's Christian Democrats. He takes issue with the term ''postcommunist'' and speaks instead of ''post-nomenklatura'' parties - in which ''the same old faces are in the same old jobs.''
''These people speak the new language but their heads are full of nostalgia for the good old days,'' adds Dieter Bingen, a Poland expert at the Federal Institute for Eastern and International Studies in Cologne, Germany.
Poland remains one of the standout performers in Eastern Europe, with sturdy growth, inflation down sharply, foreign trade-oriented Westward, and the zloty a convertible currency. But the restructuring and modernizing of large industrial enterprises has lagged. Many nominal joint-stock companies remain largely in state hands. As president, Kwasniewski would come under immense pressure to fill jobs with the party faithful.
For many voters, Walesa will be a ''lesser evil,'' a negative choice, according to Dr. Bingen. ''He's hard to assess.... People laugh at him - he doesn't speak well, he just makes up words when he talks on television.''
Earlier this year, when Walesa engineered the replacement of Waldemar Pavlak with Jozef Oleksy as prime minister, he was seen as a ''threat to democracy.'' But during the campaign, other anticommunist candidates have lost ground. Central bank president Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, ''the shooting star of the summer,'' in Bingen's phrase, ''lost her sparkle.'' Longtime dissident Jacek Kuron is personally respected but lacks an electoral base.
The Roman Catholic Church, considered by 7 out of 10 Poles to have too prominent a role in politics, has made clear that it favors anyone but Kwasniewski.
Sunday morning, parish priests may give their flocks some oblique political advice - a warning, perhaps, of ''Poland in danger'' - sufficient to tip the final tally by a few points.
''We always have to be prepared for a surprise on Monday morning,'' Bingen says. But Walesa looks more and more like the one to beat Kwasniewski.