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Old U.S. Adversary Poised for Comeback

By contrast, Edmundo Jarquín, 60, an economist who represents the breakaway Sandinista Renovation Movement and who trails Montealegre and Rizo in opinion polls, argued that the old strategy of lining up behind one candidate to defeat Ortega would only ensure the continued dominance of corrupt party bosses on the right.

"The only way to waste your vote is to vote for more of the same," Jarquín shouted at an emotional closing rally Tuesday in Managua.

Former Sandinista commander Eden Pastora is running a distant fifth in the race.

Ortega, meanwhile, sought to answer his critics by casting himself as the candidate of reconciliation.

In place of his old military fatigues, he has campaigned in jeans and white shirts to the accompaniment of a Spanish adaptation of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance."

Over the last several months he has also reached out to old enemies, signing a public "peace agreement" with a former contra group and picking as his running mate a former contra negotiator whose house he once confiscated.

Ortega, once an avowed secularist, even courted the Catholic Church by supporting legislation last month to extend Nicaragua's already restrictive abortion ban to cases in which a mother's life is in danger.

Ortega's transformation has hardly been complete. In a nation reeling from widespread unemployment, hunger and frequent electrical blackouts, he has spoken repeatedly of taming "wild capitalism" by forgiving the debt of poor farmers and requiring banks to lower the fees they charge Nicaraguans abroad to wire money to their families back home.

Still, Ortega insisted that he supports free markets, and what few references he made to the United States were muted compared to his firebreathing past.

"To those Nicaraguan brothers who still have hate and who launch these dirty campaigns full of defamations and lies," Ortega concluded at a final rally under a drizzling sky in a Managua square Wednesday, "We will respond with the solidarity . . . with the love, with the brotherly embrace that all of us Nicaraguans must extend each other."

Ortega's opponents charged that such statements were merely an attempt by Ortega to disguise his true nature. In the closing weeks of the campaign, they tried to drive the point home with ads featuring grainy black-and-white footage of the mustachioed leader strutting in his military fatigues as ominous voiceovers warned that an Ortega win could bring back unpopular features of the Sandinista era such as the military draft, confiscation of private property and a U.S. embargo.

"Let us not return to the dark night," ended one spot paid for by Rizo.

The message was echoed by Bush administration officials, including U.S. Ambassador Paul A. Trivelli and U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, who raised hackles among Nicaraguans and international observers by making what many interpreted as a thinly veiled threat to withdraw aid and impose economic sanctions in the event of an Ortega victory.

U.S. Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the House International Relations subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs, has offered similar hints.

Adding to the atmosphere of deja vu has been a series of visits from former cold warriors such as Oliver L. North, the Reagan administration aide who served as point man for secretly funneling money and weapons to the rebels in the 1980s Iran-contra scandal despite a congressional ban.

U.S. alarm over a possible Ortega victory is at least partly due to concern that he will prove an eager partner in Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's bid to counter U.S. influence in Latin America.

But Michael Shifter, vice president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy group, argued that even if that were to happen, the consequences to the United States would be minimal given Nicaragua's tiny population of 5.6 million and lack of resources.

The true source of U.S. officials' anxiety, he contended, was more visceral.

"A lot of people who are now in policy positions" in the Bush administration, Shifter said, "got their formative experience in the Reagan administration getting rid of Ortega. So if he now comes back through an election, that may change the way that this whole period is seen."

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