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MADRID (Reuters) - The opposition Popular Party's lead over Spain's ruling Socialists has halved since the prime minister said he would not run for a third term, according to a Sigma Dos poll in Sunday's right-leaning El Mundo newspaper.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, his popularity hit by the euro zone's highest jobless rate, said last week he would not seek a third term in 2012 elections.
The Socialists are expected to hold primaries for a new party leader after regional elections in May, with Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba and Defence Minister Carme Chacon tipped as possible successors.
The poll shows the PP with 44.9 percent approval against 37.8 percent for the Socialists if Chacon were the Socialist candidate and PP approval at 45.2 percent against Rubalcaba.
PP approval edges up to 45.3 percent in a contest against President of Congress Jose Bono, another possible contender.
The PP's lead shrank to 7.1 percentage points over a Chacon-led Socialist party from 16.5 points against Zapatero in March, and was slightly higher at 7.5 points against Rubalcaba and 7.9 against Bono, the poll showed.
The telephone poll surveyed 1,000 people from April 5 to 7.
Zapatero's popularity plunged after his government imposed painful spending cuts and economic reforms in a bid to prevent Spain from plunging into a fiscal crisis and following Greece, Ireland and Portugal in seeking a European Union bailout.
The Spanish economy, the euro zone's fourth largest, came under attack in bond markets after a real estate bubble burst in 2008, causing a recession and 20 percent unemployment. Spain's recovery has lagged behind those of the rest of Europe.
The Socialists lost power in Catalan regional elections in November, and face a round of elections in regions including Madrid and Valencia in May.
Reporting by Tracy Rucinski, editing by Tim Pearce