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South Korea Opposition Candidate Lee Leaves Race to Bolster Moon

South Korean presidential candidate Lee Jung Hee abandoned the race, providing a boost for main opposition contender Moon Jae In as he trails the front-runner from the ruling party by less than 1 percentage point.

Lee, a candidate from the Unified Progressive Party, is leaving the contest because allowing the New Frontier Party’s Park Geun Hye to win would be a “backward step in history,” according to a statement today on her website. South Koreans vote Dec. 19 to replace President Lee Myung Bak, whose five-year term ends in February.

The departure of minor-opposition candidate Lee further focus attention on Park and Moon, who will spar tonight in a televised debate. Lee had 0.9 percent support according to a poll released Dec. 13 by Realmeter and JTBC.

“Lee’s withdrawal gives Moon the symbolic status of being the leader of all of South Korea’s opposition,” said Sonn Ho Chul, a political science professor at Sogang University in Seoul. “But with Lee’s approval rating very low, I doubt it will change the winner and loser of the election.”

Park’s approval rating was at 48 percent while support for Moon stood at 47.5 percent, according to the survey of 2,000 people taken Dec. 12, which had a 2.2 percentage-point margin of error.

Tonight’s debate is scheduled for 8 p.m. in Seoul, and will focus on social and education issues.

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