First there is the fresh face of Alan Garcia, a 37-year-old idealist with a crowd-stirring charm and a modernistic plan for reshaping Peru's democracy.

Then there is the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance, or APRA, a home-grown party that in 60 turbulent years already has spawned two armed rebellions, provoked myriad campaigns of official repression and grown its own rich store of heroes, myths and traditions.

In troubled Peru, that combination may prove irresistible. Four months before presidential elections, Garcia and APRA have taken a commanding lead in opinion polls over leftist and rightist challengers and appear prepared to shift Peru toward a pragmatic, left-of-center government.

"We offer coherency and political realism because we are a united party with deep roots in Peru," said Garcia, who hopes to succeed retiring center-right President Fernando Belaunde Terry as the second elected president since Peru returned to democracy in 1980. "We need a man with charisma," added Luis Alberto Sanchez, APRA's 84-year-old political director, "and Alan has it. It's that simple."

The mix of candidate and party is as complex as it is dynamic. Born, raised and trained within APRA's tightly knit ranks, Garcia has led a remarkable transformation of the movement's populist, sectarian and occasionally rebellious spirit under its founder and longtime strongman, the late Victor Raul Haya de la Torre.

Peruvian analysts say APRA under Garcia has become a centrist democratic party, capable of alliances with either conservatives or leftists and roughly comparable ideologically with the social democratic movements of Venezuela and West Germany. Garcia is sometimes compared to Felipe Gonzalez, the young and pragmatic Socialist prime minister of Spain.

"Garcia has led a political modernization here," said Guillermo Thorndike, editor of the left-of-center newspaper La Republica. "He has buried everything in APRA that was anachronistic -- he has replaced the red flags with Peruvian flags. He has become the most attractive figure of a new political generation."

APRA nevertheless has retained much of its traditional character, including an almost mystic reverence for Haya and a remarkable bureaucratic machine built to compensate perpetual exclusion from government.

The old party is still vibrant in APRA's huge Lima headquarters, a ramshackle expanse of warehouses, meeting halls and stalls set around a decaying downtown mansion. There, a separate office and staff exist for every major department in the federal government -- from fishing to foreign relations -- along with social services ranging from a free dental clinic to a low-cost dining hall. A separate food distribution service is stocked with 20 tons of cornmeal and other goods provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Great crowds mill through the halls of People's House each night, surrounded by APRA's revered symbols. The desk of Haya, who died in 1979, has been elevated on a wooden platform bedecked with urns of flowers. It faces a portrait of Jesus Christ. Another shrine, "in glorious memory" of a failed 1932 armed rebellion, is mounted in the wall of a stairwell: a skull in a glass case illuminated with a red light bulb.

Before Garcia's arrival, APRA also flaunted its own flag, songs, holidays and even security forces. All were products of the party's early history as a movement violently repressed and frequently forced underground by authoritarian governments. "APRA created its own code -- there is a style of talking, a style of singing, a style of marching," said a party official close to Garcia. "It gradually created its own culture and its own interpretation of the history of Peru, leaving reality behind."

Garcia took over as secretary general of APRA in 1982, with a mandate to broaden and reshape this tradition. A former youth leader and favorite of Haya, Garcia was elected to Congress in 1980. He took advantage of rank-and-file dissatisfaction with traditional party leaders who led APRA to defeat in the 1980 elections, then divided into feuding factions.

"There was a feeling that the older generations had not known how to fill the gap left by Haya," said Congressman Carlos Roca, a contemporary of Garcia. "The party decided to jump to a young leader who could give us new life, who could carry through a complete renovation."

Critics, particularly among Peru's strong Marxist left, contend that Garcia's administration has merely glossed over the old order. United Left coalition presidential candidate Alfonso Barrantes, who has emerged in polls as Garcia's principal rival, argues that APRA's original reformist spirit has been sterilized by bureaucracy and media packaging and that only the left can direct Peru's explosive social forces toward peaceful change.

In answer, Garcia points to what he regards as a fundamental redirection of APRA's policy program to adapt to what he agrees is a "structural" social and economic crisis of "historic dimensions." Throughout its history, APRA supported policies of centralized, state-led economic development that favored industrialization over agriculture and cities over the countryside.

Garcia says that model "has been exhausted" during the past decade. As agriculture has declined, millions of peasants have migrated to Lima and other cities. Industry and government have grown inefficient, he says, while an informal, tax-free economy has grown so vast that it threatens to overwhelm formal commerce.

APRA's answer is remarkable for a left-of-center Latin American party: to shift resources from the city back to the interior, holding down industrial wages, cutting out subsidies to inefficient industry, and reducing state spending and employment. "We have to orient all of our resources to the sectors that use capital most efficiently," he said. "And it is in agriculture that the renovation should begin."

Although Peru has suffered a severe economic decline since 1980, APRA leaders have avoided promises of better times for workers. Instead, they have talked openly of sacrifices. "We are going to be a very austere and extremely disciplined government," Sanchez said. "We are going to take unpopular measures. And we are not going to promise prosperity -- because there is no prospect of this for at least three or four years."

Garcia can get by with such predictions, analysts here say, because his principal appeal lies in his own leadership. In addition, APRA has benefited from its opponents' troubles. Peru's conservative parties are divided and burdened with defending Belaunde's trouble-laden administration, and the Marxist coalition is so unwieldy -- and so threatening to the armed forces -- that its leaders privately concede that they are not prepared to rule.

The perceived lack of alternatives has left many APRA leaders with a strong sense of mission. "We have been waiting 60 years to be in government," said Roca as he stood outside the party headquarters and gazed back over its bustle. "Now APRA is the only democratic alternative left. The right can't handle the country's problems, and the left would only lead us to a military coup. We can't afford to fail."