Rutte's VVD party was predicted to win 24 seats in the 150-seat parliament in the Wednesday vote, according to three different polls cited by the DPA news agency. Their main rivals, the populist PVV led by Wilders, were expected to take between 20 and 24 seats.
According the Dutch Peilingwijzer website, which combines results from six other polling outlets, VVD enjoyed around 17 percent support, putting them three percent ahead of the PVV. The site predicted VVD taking between 24 and 28 seats, with PVV hovering between 20 and 24.
On the eve of Wednesday's legislative polls, many of the 12.9 million eligible Dutch voters appeared not to have made up their minds on which of the record 28 parties in the running to choose.
Rutte 'more convincing'
The bitter diplomatic row between Turkey and the Netherlands might give Wilders a last minute boost. In a Monday debate with Rutte, Wilders once again stressed his anti-immigration stance, slamming the Turks who live in the Netherlands but show more loyalty to Turkey. The populist leader called them a "fifth column."
However, the majority of debate viewers judged that Rutte won the night with his statesman-like behavior, according to public television program EenVandaag.
"Rutte appeared to score best in virtually all areas. People said his tone was better, more convincing than Wilders," the presenters said on the basis of a survey of 9,000 viewers.
Rutte also said that he would never cooperate with Wilders to form a government.
While attention has been focused on Rutte and Wilders, the Christian Democrats have been making a steady climb towards them both. Sybrand Buma's Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) trails Rutte by 4 percentage points and is just 1 percent behind Wilders. It is the only party to have increased its share in each of the last 11 opinion polls. Should the opinion polls be reflected in the actual vote on Wednesday, the CDA stands to win 20 seats in parliament.
Buma confirmed his confidence in his party's run as he said "We are getting stronger every
day and the chance that we are the biggest on election day is very real, and no one is expecting it."
The socially liberal D66 and a string of minor parties follow the first three.
Winning without a seat
Pollsters point out that the race remains uncertain, as around 40 percent of voters still have not made up their minds and 10 percent of voters have said they have no idea who they will support.
Even with Wilders overtaking Rutte in the parliamentary vote, the Dutch system of proportional representation is likely to keep the right-wing party out of the cabinet.
However, "Wilders plays a major role in the tone and content of the campaign and Wilders - even if he doesn't win a single seat - has already won because the two biggest right-wing parties have taken over his policies," said political analyst Andre Krouwel from Amsterdam Free University.
The last televised debate, involving all major party leaders, is scheduled for Tuesday night. Many voters said they hoped the final showdown would help them make up their minds.
dj/jm (dpa, AFP, AP)