A June 28 article on Indonesian presidential candidate Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono incorrectly said that his father was an Army officer. He was a noncommissioned officer. The article also incorrectly said the candidate founded the Democrat Party in 1991. He founded it in 2001. (Published 6/29/04)

The strains of a hearty tenor filtered out from behind the closed door of hotel room 103. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the front-runner in Indonesia's presidential race, was rehearsing a tune he would sing that morning to voters in this highland town in western Indonesia.

"I know you love me, so you will choose me," the thickset former general could be heard crooning in the local Batak dialect, practicing the lyrics he learned minutes earlier, just as he has been practicing for the country's top job for the last several years.

In an interview, the man popularly known by his initials, SBY, chortled when a reporter asked about his singing. Like many Indonesians and another presidential rival, he said he just likes to sing. He always has, including when he played bass guitar in a high school band.

Soon, if the polls are correct, he could be facing a larger audience. According to several reputable national opinion surveys, the retired Army general and former cabinet minister in the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri has far outpaced his former boss in the running for the country's first direct presidential election.

Yudhoyono, who was Megawati's coordinating minister for security and politics, is surging in the polls at a time when Indonesians, after six years of a turbulent transition to democracy, are yearning for law and order, and for more and better jobs. Critics say he is too cautious and indecisive. But Yudhoyono says he is thorough, intent on hearing all sides of an issue.

So commanding is his lead over his four rivals that he has dared to hope for an outright majority of votes on July 5. If he falls short, a run-off between the top two choices is slated for September.

If elected, Yudhoyono said his goal is to put Indonesia's "house back in order" after the 1998 ouster of President Suharto, which was followed by rising separatist and militant activity and a failure to establish effective law enforcement and judicial integrity.

His broad agenda, he added, is to maintain the unity and security of Indonesia, a diverse nation with a Muslim majority, and to revive an economy not growing fast enough to ease poverty and unable to attract significant foreign investment.

Memories of Suharto's military-backed authoritarian regime are fresh among Indonesians. Some warn about a reversal of democratic gains, with two former generals, Yudhoyono and former military commander in chief Gen. Wiranto, in the race.

Even some friends worry that Yudhoyono will be swayed by conservative advisers and will lack the boldness to carry out military reforms he helped initiate.

In 1998-99, he led a group of generals in writing a reform blueprint that stressed depoliticizing the military. The plan, only partially accomplished, included a proposal to end the military "dual function," a practice dating to 1958 in which, for instance, active duty military officers also held civilian government positions.

The military has given up some of its political role, for example, relinquishing its formerly guaranteed bloc of seats in parliament. But a key component, putting the armed forces under effective civilian control, has not been realized.

Yudhoyono dismissed fears that he would stray from the path of reform.

"I think it is going a little bit too far to connect my candidacy with a return of militarism," he said. If he is elected, he said, it would be "by the people, democratically."

One important task, Yudhoyono said, would be to fight corruption. He says he would invite all government ministers to sign an anti-corruption contract, personally checking on officials' accountability and firing violators.

"Words are proven by deeds," he said, an allusion to the inability of Megawati, who is seeking a full five-year term, to eliminate corruption despite promises to do so since she took over the presidency in 2001.

Yudhoyono, 54, the son of an Army officer, was relaxed and engaged during the interview. He wore a blue button-down shirt and a black safari jacket, and spoke fluent English, polished during several study tours in the United States. He founded the Democrat Party in 1991, which became a vehicle for his prospective candidacy. Not too long ago, he was touted mainly as a vice presidential possibility. But since the 2002 Bali bombing, his profile has gradually sharpened as he has spoken out to condemn terrorism and reassure the public that security will be enhanced, while Megawati has remained largely silent.

In March, citing frustration with his increasing marginalization by Megawati, who he said was excluding him from key cabinet meetings, he resigned. An offhand comment by Megawati's husband that Yudhoyono was being "childish" won him instant sympathy from the public. He has led the five presidential candidates in opinion polls ever since.

Opinion surveys released this month showed Yudhoyono had the support of more than 40 percent of voters, far ahead of Megawati, leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) and Wiranto, the nominee of the former Suharto party Golkar. Megawati and Wiranto are in a close race for second.

Yudhoyono, who is Muslim but like most Indonesians prefers that the country's laws be civil, said that Indonesia was in the process of "democratizing its policies," by strengthening human rights, rule of law and respect for the environment. "I do hope that the U.S. will maintain its cooperation" in pushing ahead those reforms, he said.

He noted that in the past, the two countries enjoyed full military relations and many Indonesian military officers continued their training in the United States. He completed Army Ranger and advanced infantry courses at Fort Benning, Ga. in 1976 and in1982-83.

From those experiences, "I know better the military system practiced in democratic nations," said Yudhoyono, who also earned a master's degree in business management from Webster University in St. Louis in 1991 and is finishing a doctoral degree in agricultural political economics at Bogor Agricultural University in Indonesia.

He said that he hopes full U.S.-Indonesia military ties, including education training, can be restored. Military aid to Indonesia was cut following Indonesian military-backed mass killings of civilians in East Timor in 1999 after the former colony voted for independence.

In the battle against terrorism, he said that the U.S. government should grant Indonesia direct access to the captured Indonesian al Qaeda militant, Hambali, so Indonesians can better prosecute militants arrested at home.

Yudhoyono is seen as largely untainted by scandal. But an investigation has been reopened into a violent putdown of a July 1996 protest at the Jakarta headquarters of the then-opposition Indonesian Democratic Party, now PDI-P. Five students were killed. Yudhoyono was chief of staff -- second in charge at the Jakarta military command at the time, which was assigned to deal with the protesters. Two security officials involved in the investigation said so far, there was insufficient evidence to charge Yudhoyono in connection with the case.

At present, he is not on the list of suspects, according to the attorney general's office. Yudhoyono declined to discuss the matter, but said that it should be investigated in "a fair and open legal process."

On Saturday, he traveled to Medan, a provincial capital in western Indonesia and a PDI-P stronghold in 1999. About 5,000 people jammed a pavilion under a scorching sun. Two weeks earlier, Megawati drew an audience half the size.

Yudhoyono appealed for unity, democracy and human rights.

"One for all, all for one!" he said.

And then, his speech finished, he offered his Batak love song, drawing cheers and a few tears.

That night, back in Jakarta, he and Wiranto appeared on a wildly popular Indonesian version of American Idol. Clad in a black leather jacket, he sang a well-known contemporary ballad. He bobbled a few notes, but thousands of young people, familiar with the words, sang along. His performance rocked the house.

"For a singer armed only with courage," a judge on the panel commented, "you made a good decision to sing a popular song."

Correspondent Alan Sipress in Jakarta and special correspondent Natasha Tampubolon in Siantar contributed to this report.

The front-running Indonesian presidential candidate, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, right, teams with Indonesian rock star Jamrud for a song during a rally in the final weekend of campaigning before the July 5 election.