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Ortega foe gains in Nicaraguan presidential race


MANAGUA, Nicaragua - Billboards around the country depict an elderly man with a gentle face, sweet smile and twinkling eyes declaring, "Yes, we can."

It's Enrique Bolanos, the 73-year-old former vice president, hoping to convince Nicaraguans to give him a shot at the country's top job. But as election day nears, people here wonder: Can he win?

Or will Bolanos' close association with what is widely considered a corrupt and failed presidency doom him, and leave the country instead in the hands of the Sandinista Front's Daniel Ortega?

Just before Sunday's election, polls show Bolanos neck and neck with the former revolutionary guerrilla who jailed him, seized millions of dollars in properties from him - and now just might beat him to the presidency.

Most observers believe the principal reason Bolanos isn't faring better among voters is his close identification with President Arnoldo Aleman.

"He has to carry Aleman, and it's a heavy load," said political scientist Arturo Cruz. "It costs him."

Aleman was elected president in 1996 after serving six years as Managua's mayor. Bolanos, former head of the elite chamber of commerce, was vice president until resigning a year ago to run for office. During their term, the nation enjoyed paved new roads, malls and an average 5 percent economic growth. But it also watched the collapse of one of its chief exports, coffee, as well as a number of banks.

As a result, a country already confronting desperate poverty and widespread unemployment now has thousands of unemployed farmhands begging for handouts and government intervention.

In addition to the failing economy, Aleman is also criticized for surrounding himself with corrupt bureaucrats and for making deals with the opposing Sandinistas.

Last year, Aleman's tax collector was accused of mishandling hundreds of thousands of dollars, and newspapers discovered Aleman had built a helicopter pad at his house with government funds.

Bolanos tries to distance himself from the scandals.

"If they talk about corruption, Enrique Bolanos is not touched by that," he said in an interview with The Miami Herald. "There has not been one remote accusation on anything I have managed, including the vice presidency."

But despite being viewed as honest, Bolanos has been dogged with the perception that he did not do enough to rid Aleman's administration of trouble. Critics fear he'd be Aleman's puppet.

Last week, Bolanos stepped up his anti-corruption rhetoric by declaring that Aleman would be investigated if Bolanos wins his way into the presidential palace. But experts point out there will be little Bolanos can do to the Liberal Party strongman who picked this election season's slate of congressional candidates.

"There's no way to handle this well," Cruz said. "On the one side he needs to separate himself, but without breaking ties from Aleman - because he's the one in control of the party."

A recent poll by CID-Gallup showed Bolanos inching past Ortega for the first time. Statistically, it's a tie: Bolanos has 38 percent of the vote, Ortega 37.

But what has astounded people here is that Bolanos has not been able to capture more support in a country where about 60 percent of potential voters say they would never elect a Sandinista to run the country. The Sandinistas were in power here from 1979 to 1990, and Nicaraguans still suffer from the spiraling inflation and war their reign brought.

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