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When Romanians pick a president today, their main choice is between the forces of the past -- flawed but comfortingly familiar -- and an inexperienced challenger promising a dynamic, Western-leaning future.

The close race reflects a nation being pulled in two directions as it elects the man who will replace longtime President Ion Iliescu and pursue Romania's cherished dream of joining the prosperous European Union in 2007.

The 53-year-old challenger is Traian Basescu, mayor of Bucharest, the capital. He is a former ship's captain with tremendous personal magnetism.

The ruling Social Democratic Party candidate is the prime minister, Adrian Nastase. He seems the embodiment of the old-guard communist apparatus that reinvented itself as democracy's champion after the collapse of communism and 1989 execution of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

The first preliminary results of today's vote are expected Monday.

If no candidate wins outright, a runoff is likely in two weeks.

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