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Originally published Wednesday, June 9, 2010 at 3:43 AM

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Profiles of leading Dutch candidates

Profiles of the leading candidates for prime minister in Wednesday's Dutch parliamentary elections, in order of their ranking in the latest opinion polls.

The Associated Press

AMSTERDAM —

Profiles of the leading candidates for prime minister in Wednesday's Dutch parliamentary elections, in order of their ranking in the latest opinion polls.

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MARK RUTTE, 43, People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD): Concern over the economy propelled Rutte's free-markets, pro-business party into the lead in the polls.

The VVD also wants to tighten immigration, vowing to keep out uneducated migrants unlikely to find work and who could be a drain on the welfare state.

The VVD wants to slash euro20 billion ($25 billion) from the national budget over four years without raising taxes. Critics say the poorest people would be hardest hit under the VVD's proposed welfare cuts.

"We won't dodge tough measures, because just carrying on as we are is not an option," Rutte said.

A former personnel manager with Dutch multinational Unilever, Rutte won a bruising leadership battle with popular former immigration minister, Rita Verdonk, in 2006. He cemented his position by kicking Verdonk out of the party in 2007 after she criticized him for being silent on the immigration issue.

Rutte, 43, is unmarried. Asked about bachelorhood in 2006, Rutte said he was uninterested in starting a family. "I like living alone."

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JOB COHEN, 62, Labor Party: Cohen was Amsterdam's mayor for nearly a decade until he resigned last March to lead his party into the election.

As mayor, his most telling moment came in 2004 after an Islamist fanatic murdered filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who had produced a film critical of Muslim attitudes toward women. Cohen, whose background is Jewish, teamed up with Muslim alderman Ahmed Aboutaleb to soothe anti-Islam tensions in the wake of the killing.

In 2008 he was given the Martin Luther King Award for "his ability to bring different people closer together" and his adherence to nonviolence.

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Cohen has never won elected office - Dutch mayors are appointed by the government - but he has rich experience in administration.

Before moving full-time into political life, he was a law professor and rector of the University of Maastricht.

He was a junior education minister in 1993-94 and later named Labor's leader in the upper house of parliament, which ratifies legislation enacted by the lower chamber.

He returned to the cabinet in 1998 as junior justice minister. Among his last acts in that job was to draft toughened immigration regulations and a bill legalizing gay marriage.

Several months later as mayor, at the stroke of midnight April 1, 2001, when the law went into effect, he officiated at the world's first formal same-sex marriage.

Cohen champions traditional leftist economic views. He hopes to temper austerity measures to preserve social programs for the poor, including immigrants.

Cohen can often be seen at official functions in Amsterdam wheeling his wife Lidie, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. They have two children.

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JAN PETER BALKENENDE, 54, Christian Democratic Alliance: Prime minister since 2002, Balkenende has led four coalition governments, none of which survived a full four-year term.

Balkenende's conservative administration is credited with keeping the Dutch economy in better shape than most other European countries, with low unemployment and relatively calm labor relations.

His strengths include a sharp debating style and a natural cautiousness that has helped him avoid controversy and blunders. Critics consider him stiff and old-fashioned.

But until the CDA's recent slide in the polls, Balkenende never faced a serious challenge for his party's leadership since taking its top position in 1998. Earlier, he had had only a brief career in parliament as the party's economic spokesman.

Among the important compromises Balkenende crafted was the Dutch policy toward the war in Iraq: offering the U.S. political but not military support. Though it sent no troops to Iraq, it dispatched infantry to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.

His last government fell over a dispute with the Labor Party, a coalition partner, which objected to Balkenende's desire to extend the Dutch presence in that country.

During his eight years in office his administrations cracked down on immigration, creating "departure centers" where illegal immigrants were detained before deportation; instituting language tests for would-be immigrants and citizenship tests for resident aliens.

A devout Calvinist, Balkenende, is a former professor of Christian philosophy, a background that strongly influenced his career as a politician.

He was 40 when he married wife Bianca. They have a daughter.

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GEERT WILDERS, 46, Freedom Party: The country's most outspoken politician, Wilders built his reputation on an uncompromising anti-Islam message.

In 2008, he produced a short film called Fitna that denounced the Quran as a a fascist book that inspires terrorism. The film aroused anti-Dutch protests around the Muslim world, and he was banned for several months from entering Britain. Dutch prosecutors have charged him with incitement of hatred and discrimination. His trial is set for later this year.

Wilders's views were partly fashioned from an extended stay in Israel as a young man, followed by trips through the Arab world, which he criticized as undemocratic.

He became a speechwriter for the VVD, now led by Mark Rutte, and later a VVD parliament member. He broke with the VVD in 2004 over its support for Turkey's membership in the European Union.

Wilders' focus on immigration issues won him wide support until the European financial crisis pushed economic issues to the top of the election agenda. Before that, opinion polls named his party as the country's most popular.

The Freedom Party has been criticized as being a one-man show, with no other experienced or well known figures on his parliamentary list.

Because of frequent death threats, he lives under constant police protection and in government safe houses. Little is known about his current private life, but he is reported to be in a second marriage with a Hungarian wife. They have no children.

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