LIMA – It was a sign of opposition candidate Alejandro Toledo's rising star status in Peru's presidential race that three weeks before the 2000 election he began to wear a bullet-proof vest at campaign rallies.
"The only way I can be stopped now is with a bullet," the former shoeshine boy turned World Bank economist said, sitting in his private plane on one of his many campaign trips in Peru's far-flung jungle, coastal and mountain provinces.
Toledo's humble rural origins, streetwise, back-slapping manner and darker Andean features made him President Alberto Fujimori's strongest rival during the 2000 elections in a nation where most of the voters are poor Indians.
The candidate has mixed left-wing rhetoric and populist touches with a staple diet of free-market policies, appealing to thousands of voters, who show increasing voter fatigue after 10 years of Fujimori's government.
But his popularity surge in March of 2000, vaulting to about 30 percent in polls from single-digit support in January, has reportedly sparked death threats.
Peru's reputation as one of the region's worst rights offenders under Fujimori worsened during an increasingly dirty campaign, where stone-throwing routinely disrupted Toledo's rallies, like those of all opposition candidates.
A year ago, Fujimori trampled constitutional restrictions and won a third straight five-year term in elections marred by fraud and dirty tricks.
Peru was plunged into political turmoil as Peruvians supporting Toledo, who finished second to Fujimori, took to the streets accusing the autocratic leader of trying to rig the vote.
The crisis was averted three days later when election officials announced Fujimori had fallen just shy of the absolute majority. But Toledo boycotted the second round.
In December of 1999 Toledo, one of 16 children born in a remote Andean village in northern Peru, kicked off his first cash-strapped, volunteer-based campaign with his wife, Eliane Karp, a Belgian-born anthropologist.
A stocky 55-year-old with wavy black hair, Toledo is a cocktail of contemporary, contradictory Peru, mixing fluent English with the traditional Indian Quechua language, combining slang on the street with highbrow theory at economic seminars.
His campaign is steeped in Inca symbols. In Peru he is widely known as the "cholo," an endearing term used for Peruvians of mixed Indian descent who emigrated from the Andes to make a living in the nation's huge coastal urban sprawls.
The nickname is appropriate. Toledo was born in the Andes but grew up in the poor northern port of Chimbote, where he became a newspaper correspondent before winning a scholarship to the United States.
"I am a rebellious, stubborn Indian and they are not going to conquer me," Toledo said to cheering supporters at one campaign rally in this nation of 25 million people.
Some pollsters labeled him an "Andean fairy tale," a "cholo" who entered Stanford University where he met Karp, his striking red-haired wife. She stands out in this macho Latin country where European woman are generally admired.
Belgian Wife a Vote Winner
Karp, who has worked for U.S.-financed agricultural projects, has played a key campaign role, attracting voters with television talk show appearances, performing traditional Andean dances or holding her own news conferences on the economy.
After meeting in the 1970s at Stanford, the couple moved to Peru in the early 1980s where he has worked as a Lima business school director, Harvard teacher and consultant for the World Bank in Washington. They have an 18-year-old daughter, Chantal.
Karp has defended her husband amid numerous accusations in pro-government news reports that Toledo fathered an illegitimate daughter or was associated with the jailed owner of a bankrupt bank in the early 1990s.
"I know who I am sleeping with," she told reporters, adding that she would naturalize herself Peruvian after the elections.
In 1995 Toledo made his first bid as president but he finished a poor third behind winner Fujimori and former United Nations chief Javier Perez de Cuellar.
After that campaign his wife and daughter gave him some advice — come down from his academic highbrow horse and adopt a more fighting, streetwise battle for votes, concentrating on creating jobs and easing poverty.
But until 1999 he was largely out of the public eye, although he made the headlines when he was briefly held hostage by leftist rebels at the start of a four-month long siege at the Japanese ambassador's home in Lima.