QUITO, Ecuador (AP) – Name a Latin American politician who frequently resorts to anti-American rhetoric and refers to President Bush as a devil. For those tempted to say Hugo Chavez, here’s another hint: He’s also the frontrunner in Ecuador’s presidential election today.

Economist Rafael Correa, tall, charismatic and youthful at 43, is surging into the lead as a fresh-faced outsider in what could be the latest gain for Latin America’s leftward shift. But he faces a strong challenge from Alvaro Noboa, a banana billionaire who is also pushing a populist line, but from the capitalist end.

“We will do away with the lying oligarchy!” Correa shouted Thursday night, getting soaked as he closed his campaign in a drenching downpour with some 3,000 supporters on a blocked-off avenue. “We will take it in the first round, the first round!”

His critical view of Ecuadorean democracy as a system that benefits parties, not people, is shared by many voters. But despite Correa’s confidence, no candidate in the field of 13 was expected to win outright today.

Noboa, 55 and making his third run for president, has moved into a close second place, overtaking center-left former Vice President Leon Roldos, 64. Cynthia Viteri, 40, a conservative former congresswoman who is strongly pro-business, has slipped to a distant fourth.

To avoid a runoff Nov. 26, a candidate would need 50 percent or at least 40 percent of the valid vote and a 10-point lead over the rest. Correa had nowhere near 40 percent in the latest polls, which under Ecuadorean law cannot be published here in the 20 days before today’s election.

Latin America has seen a string of left-wing presidents elected in recent times, notably in Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. Some of them are admirers of Chavez, Venezuela’s fiercely anti-American president, while others have sought to distance themselves from him.

Correa is an outspoken Chavez admirer.

“We want a change for our country. We want it governed for the poor,” said Blanca Ponce, 56, waving a flag with the candidate’s smiling face. “He is our hope for Ecuador, which has been manipulated by millionaires.”

Correa, who has a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois, is new to politics. He served just 106 days last year as finance minister under interim President Alfredo Palacio, who replaced Lucio Gutierrez in the midst of street protests in April 2005.

Adopting the language of Chavez, who called Bush “the devil” in a speech to the United Nations, Correa said that the devil himself should be offended by the comparison, and that Bush was “tremendously dimwitted.”

Correa also calls the Ecuadorean Congress a “sewer” and has vowed to rally street protests if lawmakers don’t agree to a new constitution that trims the power of the parties and strengthens the presidency.

Correa is running no candidates for Congress, and plans instead to hold a referendum, followed by the election of an assembly to rewrite the constitution.

His rhetoric has rattled bond markets, as has his call for cutting ties to international lending institutions and his threat of a debt default.

“Correa is going for an all-or-bust strategy,” said Patrick Esteruelas, an analyst on Wall Street. He said the candidate is betting on his ability to mobilize the masses to push through radical reform.

Rival Noboa has tapped into a strong current of support for populist politics in Ecuador, an oil-rich nation of 13.4 million people, 76 percent of whom are poor, according to UNICEF.

With a Bible under his arm and frequent references to God in his speeches, Noboa has crisscrossed the small Andean nation handing out computers, medicine and money.

“Ecuadoreans want to eat. They don’t want these political speeches of bla-bla-bla,” Noboa said in last week’s debate among the top candidates. “They want jobs, housing, they want health coverage, they want education. That’s why the other candidates don’t have the popular support I do.”

At Noboa’s closing rally in a poor barrio in the coastal city of Guayaquil, he made a show of donating computers to a local school, giving away wheelchairs and lending $700 to a woman to start up a small business.

He pledged to issue enough government bonds to build 300,000 homes a year, creating 3 million construction jobs in the process, and then selling the homes for just $50 a month.

In the crowd was Ricardo Luna, 28, who earns a precarious living repairing locks. He said he supports Noboa because he “has shown with his acts, in education and health, that he cares about people despite being a tremendously wealthy candidate.”


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