Chavez Ally Surges in Ecuadorean Race

The Associated Press
Thursday, September 28, 2006; 5:02 PM

PUJILI, Ecuador -- A U.S.-trained economist has suddenly become the front-runner in Oct. 15 presidential elections by pledging to "give the lash" to his nation's corrupt political class and delivering an anti-U.S. message similar to that of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

On a recent afternoon, Rafael Correa spoke to thousands of Indians in their native Quichua, reminding them that he lived among them two decades ago as a volunteer teacher and development worker, and brandishing a belt as he spoke out against the politicians who have long oppressed them.

"Dale Correa!" _ "Give them the belt!" _ the crowd responded, a play on the candidate's name.

Correa, 43, pledges to cut foreign debt payments and re-negotiate contracts with foreign oil firms to benefit Ecuador's poor majority. A relative political newcomer, he has risen suddenly in the polls in the last two weeks, alarming Washington and Wall Street _ not to mention Ecuador's political establishment.

Correa's rhetoric echoes that of other Chavez allies, including President Evo Morales of Bolivia and Ollanta Humala, the nationalist who came close to winning Peru's presidency this year. Last week, Chavez called President Bush "the devil" in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly.

"Calling Bush the devil is offending the devil," Correa told Channel 8 television Wednesday. "The devil is evil, but intelligent."

"I believe Bush is a tremendously dimwitted president who has done great damage to his country and to the world," Correa said.

Tall, dark-skinned with blue eyes and exuding confidence, Correa has about 27 percent backing in the polls, 7 points ahead of his closest challenger, Leon Roldos, a center-left former vice president. Conservative former Rep. Cynthia Viteri trails a distant third among 13 candidates.

If no candidate wins more than half the vote _ or at least 40 percent with a 10-percentage point advantage over the nearest challenger _ a runoff will be held on Nov. 26.

In this small Andean nation notorious for its unstable, corrupt politics _ Ecuador has had seven presidents in the last 10 years, three of whom were forced from office _ Correa is seen as something of an outsider.

Correa "is new, with a dynamic spirit, and I like that," said Franklin Almachi, a 40-year-old Indian merchant from the village of Guaytambo. "He doesn't come off like the rest of the same old" politicians.

Until recently a professor at Quito's San Francisco University, Correa earned his doctorate from the University of Illinois in 2001.

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