Slapping the leather cover of a Bible, a man in this city's central square attracted a pressing crowd one recent morning with the promise that a passage he had found in Deuteronomy spoke directly to his country.
" 'One from among your brethren you shall set as king over you,' " he said, " 'and you may not put a foreigner over you who is not your brother.' "
The biblical foreigner, he explained, was the U.S. government and the multinational corporations that exploit Bolivia's natural resources. The potential king was Evo Morales, a former union leader whose message of the need for freedom from U.S. economic interests has put him at the top of the list of presidential hopefuls.
"Evo is the only one who can defend us," said Jose Meneces Gomez, a bystander who had crowded close to hear. "We need someone who will be a president for Bolivians, not for anyone else."
On Friday, Bolivia's electoral court indefinitely postponed elections, which were to take place in December. While the government dispute involved wrangling about how congressional seats should be distributed, Morales described the decision to suspend elections as a personal attack on his success. He said the squabble over congressional seats was calculated to derail his campaign and stop a wave of anti-globalization spreading through South America.
"If they don't want us to win democratically," he said last week during a rally in central Bolivia, "the people will rise up and take power by force."
Street protests have toppled two presidents in two years, and the December elections were seen by Morales's supporters -- many of whom had participated in the protests -- as a chance for the country to reverse centuries of exploitation by foreign governments and multinational corporations.
Morales has cast the prospect of a popular uprising as a last resort, saying he hopes the elections can be salvaged. He has continued to campaign on a platform of self-determination, which plays very well among the 60 percent of Bolivians who, like Morales, are of indigenous descent. But he has won few allies among international investors.
Morales is also clearly not the favorite of U.S. officials, who have been quiet about this campaign. When Morales ran for president in 2002, the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia warned that the United States might cut economic ties if he won. Few statements could have helped Morales more; a late upsurge drove him to second place, just 1.5 percentage points behind the winner.
"We are not interested in protecting U.S. interests," Morales said in an interview two weeks ago. "We don't want to protect policies that fail to resolve the problems of the majority in our country."
Morales, 46, got his start in national politics as the head of the Federation of Coca Farmers, an experience that shaped his opposition to the United States. Coca is a traditional crop among Andean Indians, used as a stimulant to ward off mountain sickness long before it was processed to make cocaine. He describes the U.S. government's efforts throughout South America to eradicate coca as a strategy to keep Bolivia subservient to outside control. The real target of the anti-drug programs, he says, is his country's natural gas reserves, the second-largest in South America. The oil reserves historically have been extracted by foreign corporations under government contracts that Morales deems exploitive.
"The pretext is going after the narco-traffickers, the narco-terrorists," Morales said. "But they really just want to take control of our resources."
The demonstrators who ousted President Carlos Mesa this summer had demanded that Bolivia take 100 percent control of the gas reserves from the foreign companies. Morales has adopted that popular demand, after originally calling for a 50 percent royalty on foreign companies' profits -- considered a sign that he may not be as radical as many of his supporters. Morales acknowledges that Bolivia needs foreign investment to thrive but he wants the investment on Bolivia's terms, not those of multinational corporations.
Morales and allies in the National Congress took the first step toward claiming a bigger share of natural gas profits this year when the Congress passed higher tariffs on foreign companies. International investment in the energy sector has fallen from $608 million in 1998 to $62.5 million in the first half of 2005, according to industry analysts.
To make up for any losses from traditional investors, Morales has suggested that ties with China could be strengthened. He has also called for a unified network of leftist governments throughout South America, prompting comparison with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Unsubstantiated news reports allege that Chavez has given money to Morales's political party, the Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS. But Morales denies taking anything but inspiration from the Venezuelan president, whom he praised for his work to protect the country's resources.
"The Latin American left is watching each other closely, and each step that one country takes emboldens the others," said Jim Schultz, a political analyst with the Democracy Center, a research group based in Cochabamba, in central Bolivia. "There are two reasons why Evo Morales thinks he can be president: The first is President Lula in Brazil, and the second is Hugo Chavez in Venezuela."
Like those of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo -- both former shoeshine boys -- Morales's journey from extreme poverty to the presidency would be unprecedented in his country's political history.
An Aymara Indian, Morales was born in a thatched-roof shack in Bolivia's eastern highlands. Four of his six brothers and sisters died in childhood. When he was 12, Morales and his father walked for nearly a month to shepherd their llamas to Cochabamba -- a pilgrimage that friendly commentators have described as fitting for a future leader.
As a teenager, he labored as a brick worker, baked bread and played the trumpet in a traveling band. He attended college but dropped out, completed mandatory military service, then settled in the tropical region of the Chapare to grow coca and other crops.
The trip from Cochabamba to the Chapare, which remains Morales's political base, is an ear-popping, three-hour ride downhill on roads that cut through fern-covered cliff sides. In front of roadside houses, blue MAS flags hang from bending branches. Posters of Morales -- showing his helmet of black hair, parted in the center with heavy bangs -- are plastered to brick walls. Most residents of the Chapare are of indigenous descent, and many believe an indigenous president would help reverse centuries of oppression by the country's largely white ruling elite.
"From the lowest levels of school, kids in Bolivia are taught that Bolivia is a victim, that we are prone to failure and prone to be deceived by outsiders," said Roberto Luserna, an economist with a research organization affiliated with former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who was driven from the country in 2003 because of a plan to export natural gas through Chile. "So the common point of view is that other countries are all looking at Bolivia as something to exploit and take advantage of, which is ridiculous."
However, to those who have made Morales the favorite in the next election, whenever it occurs, the belief is anything but ridiculous. Under Bolivia's election laws, the National Congress gets to choose the president from the top two finishers if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the popular vote. Some analysts say they believe Morales could have a hard time forming legislative coalitions to get the required congressional support. However, his main opponent -- ex-president Jorge Quiroga -- has said he would not pursue a congressional victory if he does not win the popular vote.
Some analysts in Bolivia say any future president could face the same pressure from protest groups that crippled previous administrations. Morales would face high expectations, they say, especially from protesters who now support him.
Morales says that if an election is held and he does not win, he will respect the results and not call for a confrontation in the streets -- unless the new administration comes looking for a fight.
"As long as people don't have employment, health, education and housing, and until we nationalize our natural resources," he said, "then protests will continue to be a force for change."
Special correspondent Bill Faries in La Paz contributed to this report.