MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Daniel Ortega, the rebel leader driven from power 16 years ago by a U.S.-backed war and the missteps of his own Sandinista movement, was cruising toward victory and an unlikely political resurrection in Nicaragua's presidential vote yesterday.
The result was a blow to the Bush administration, which worked actively to discourage Nicaraguans from voting for Ortega, a 60-year-old former Marxist now allied with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the bete noire of Latin American and U.S. conservatives.
With 62 percent of the ballots counted yesterday, Ortega was outpolling conservative challenger Eduardo Montealegre by 39 percent to 31 percent. Two separate "quick counts" that took scientific samples of the vote found Ortega would win a clear and "irrefutable" first-round triumph.
Ortega's apparent victory was celebrated yesterday evening in the impoverished neighborhoods of this and other Nicaraguan cities, where the Sandinista National Liberation Front's core supporters have remained loyal through years of revolution, counter-revolution and electoral defeats.
"I feel like I did in 1979 because this is a new revolution," said Violeta Mena, 44, remembering the day when the Sandinistas marched into Nicaragua after defeating the army of dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. "This is not an armed revolution, it's a revolution for social justice."
Though his followers still call him el comandante, Ortega won by reinventing himself as a moderate and a dealmaker in the long tradition of Latin American populist politics.
Over the past two years, Ortega has fashioned a series of cunning alliances that have left his opponents on both ends of the political spectrum weak and divided.
Ortega reconciled with former enemies, including the hierarchy of the local Roman Catholic Church and former commanders of the right-wing contra army who fought to overthrow him in the 1980s. And Sandinista legislators used their influence to change the rules of the electoral contest to make a first-round victory easier.
"He's a smart man and a shrewd politician, obviously," former President Jimmy Carter said. Carter, who as president met Ortega when the Sandinistas came to power in the 1979 revolution, was leading a 62-observer delegation here.
Having pulled off an unlikely political second act, Ortega "has an opportunity to heal his country and to heal the disparity between his country and the United States," Carter said.
Ortega won a first-round victory in Sunday's vote thanks in large measure to a constitutional amendment the Sandinistas negotiated with Nicaragua's most powerful politician - the convicted former president Arnoldo Aleman. The amendment lowered the threshold for a first-round victory from 45 percent to 35 percent. Aleman, in exchange, received a loosening of the conditions of his house arrest.
In 1990, 1996 and 2001 Ortega lost presidential elections to conservative candidates even though he won a greater percentage of the votes in each of those races than he did Sunday.
Carter and other international and Nicaraguan observers said the voting Sunday had proceeded normally, despite claims by conservative candidates and the dissident Sandinista Renovation Movement of widespread irregularities.
"The election has taken place in a climate of tranquility," said Claudio Fava, head of the European Union's team of election monitors. "There was no fraud."
U.S. officials, who have strongly urged Nicaraguans not to vote for Ortega and threatened economic consequences, responded cautiously yesterday and said they would withhold comment to await final results.
"The Nicaraguan electorate has responsibility for choosing its leaders," a U.S. State Department statement said. "We will work with those leaders based on their commitment to actions in support of Nicaragua's democratic future."
After meeting with Carter at a Managua hotel last night, Ortega told reporters Nicaragua would continue to "give security to the private sector, protect foreign and national investors ... and work to eradicate poverty in the country."
Ortega's opponents were not prepared to concede defeat.
"This is a battle to transform Nicaragua," Montealegre, a Harvard-educated banker, said yesterday morning. "It won't be over until the last vote is counted."
Hector Tobar writes for the Los Angeles Times.