Prime Minister Costas Simitis yesterday bid his official farewell to President Costis Stephanopoulos, visiting him at the Presidential Palace to brief him on domestic politics and the Cyprus issue, just nine days before the elections that will bring a new premier to power. «Our meeting was aimed primarily at my thanking him. To thank him for the very good cooperation I had with him as prime minister,» Simitis said after the meeting. He added that Stephanopoulos, whose second five-year term ends next year, would serve as an example to future presidents. «He was always extremely sensitive to the functioning of institutions and contributed, I believe, to our democracy’s very smooth functioning all these years.» While Simitis was saying his farewells, the main contenders in the race to succeed him after the March 7 polls were assessing their performances in the televised news conference held Thursday night by five party leaders. The discussion drew a record audience of 40 percent of the population (or 3,696,000 viewers) during the broadcast. Also, 63.2 percent (5,839,000 people) watched for at least a minute. Debates between the two main party leaders in 2000 and 1996 attracted an audience of 38.7 percent and 33.6 percent, respectively. Officials at ruling PASOK argued that their leader George Papandreou had fared well in the discussion. «He showed he is ready to govern, knows the issues and has a vision for the future,» spokeswoman Anna Diamantopoulou said. Others said privately that it was unlikely Papandreou had trimmed New Democracy’s lead in the polls, which was about 3 percent a week ago. ND, conversely, exuded confidence that leader Costas Karamanlis had appeared more prepared for the discussion and for the role of premier. «With arguments, with overall knowledge of the issues, and with persuasive speech, Costas Karamanlis answered all the questions,» said spokesman Theodoris Roussopoulos. Papandreou last night addressed a mass rally in Patras and Karamanlis one in Ioannina. Earlier, Papandreou presented PASOK’s health policy. «We have created the infrastructure. Now our aim is quality,» he said.