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Less than a week after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hospitalization, his Kadima party - currently under the stewardship of his heir, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - continues to gather strength, despite Sharon's absence.

If elections were held now, Kadima would win 44 Knesset seats - four more than in the first survey taken after Sharon was hospitalized. Labor dropped two seats (to 16), while Likud lost one (to 13) in comparison with that poll. No significant changes were recorded for the remaining parties. Shinui stands right on the threshold for Knesset entry, with four seats. The poll gives Shas 10 seats, with Meretz-Yahad holding steady at five.

The figures are based on a Haaretz-Channel 10 poll conducted Monday by Dialog, under the supervision of Professor Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University, among a representative sample of 640 Israelis.

Olmert bested his rivals, Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor Chairman Amir Peretz, not only with Knesset seats for Kadima but also in personal characteristics such as credibility and suitability to the position of prime minister.

Senior Kadima officials, however, believe that these results still reflect the popular identification with and support for Sharon, and that some of the respondents are transfering their support and affection for the prime minister to his replacement and his party, despite being aware that Sharon will not return to lead it.

Sharon's aides - who are now working with Olmert - believe that these positive results for Kadima and Olmert will not last for long. They do say, however, that if they can avoid missteps and meld Olmert and Sharon into "Sharon's Path," then "chances are good that Kadima will end up as the biggest party after the election, and Olmert will be asked to form the next government."

Most of Kadima's strength is coming from Labor, Likud and Shinui - 35, 51 and 60 percent, respectively - of the people who voted for those three parties in 2003, who now say that they will be putting a Kadima ballot into the box come March 28.

Olmert's personal rating has taken an amazing leap in the past week. Never before considered a popular favorite or a leading candidate for prime minister, his sober performance - against the background of regrettable circumstances - has made him just that.

In response to the question, which of the three candidates is most suited to being prime minister, Olmert beats out Netanyahu and Peres, with ratings surprisingly similar to those of Sharon on the eve of his hospitalization: 44 percent, compared with 23 percent for Netanyahu and 13.5 percent for Peretz.

Support for Olmert among future Kadima voters is higher than the support extended by Labor voters to Peretz and by Likud voters to Netanyahu with regard to job suitability - 85, 66 and 73 percent, respectively.

Olmert is also seen as the most suitable person to deal with Israel's security and diplomatic problems, despite the fact that Netanyahu was prime minister for three years. The gap here is not too significant, however, with 40.5 percent for Olmert compared with 29.5 percent for Netanyahu and 9 percent for Peretz.

On social welfare issues, too, Olmert once again beats out his rivals, though just barely, with 30 percent support compared with 28.5 percent for Peretz and 27 percent for Netanyahu, who was largely responsible for the country's economic growth in the past three years.

Respondents were asked to rate the trustworthiness of Olmert, Netanyahu and Peretz on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 indicating "very untrustworthy" and 5 indicating "very trustworthy." The findings were: Olmert 3.4; Peretz 2.9; and Netanyahu in last place at 2.4.

For the last two survey questions, respondents were asked to place the three men on an imaginary ladder representing the political scale from right (1) to left (5). This is particularly significant in light of the current conventional wisdom which holds that most people want a candidate who is in the political center. Indeed, Olmert, like Sharon, scored nearly dead-center, at 2.97, with Peretz much farther left (3.90) and Netanyahu on the right (2.00).

Finally, respondents were asked to place themselves on the same scale. Most respondents placed themselves very near to Olmert, at 2.95 on the imaginary scale.