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MOSCOW — Vladimir V. Putin was not the subject of Sunday’s bruising vote in Russia, but you would not have known it from watching him when the early results came in. He looked like someone who has just received very bad news, and stumbled his way through a speech to his supporters, barely forcing a smile before stepping off the podium.

United Russia’s loss of 77 parliamentary seats has confirmed, for anyone who doubted it, that some Russian voters are cooling toward Putin’s government. It comes as Putin begins his own three-month campaign to return to the presidency — a decision he revealed in September, with the expectation that voters would be reassured, easing the path to re-election for both United Russia and himself.

That expectation was wrong, and on the heels of United Russia’s poor showing, some analysts were entertaining a question that would have sounded bizarre two years ago: Will Putin win in the first round, or be forced into a runoff?

“I think that yesterday, there was a line drawn between the Putin of the past, with his great successes, and the Putin in the future,” said Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“No longer is Putin capable of winning in the presidential election just by saying general words about justice and reminding people of his achievements when he was president. He should explain why exactly he is coming back to office and what his plans are.”

On Monday night, several thousand people gathered in a light rain on a Moscow boulevard, chanting “Russia Without Putin” and brandishing signs that read, “These elections are a farce!” In interviews, many participants said it was the first time they had taken part in a protest. Tatyana Sergina, 27, a bank employee who was wrapped in a down jacket, said her goal was to keep Putin from winning in the March election, forcing him into a runoff with “a strong opponent.”

The presidential campaign may be easier than the parliamentary one was. Voters have come to identify United Russia with unresponsive, corrupt apparatchiks they encounter in their daily lives — but they tend not to blame Putin for the failures of other officials.

Putin’s approval ratings have been declining, but they remain high by international standards, at above 60 percent, according to the independent Levada Center. He has a particularly ardent following among female voters over 40, said Gleb O. Pavlovsky, a political consultant who, until recently, worked closely with the Kremlin.