Tired but excited, 80 young women from around the world went through their last practice sessions for the Miss Universe (search) pageant, as political turmoil boiled around them in this small Andean nation.

They defended their efforts to be selected as the world's most beautiful woman. As the contestants prepared for Tuesday night's contest, some 500 Indian demonstrators marched several blocks from their hotel, protesting against the pageant and President Lucio G (search)utierrez, under increasing pressure to step down.

Miss USA Shandi Finnessey (search) labeled as unfair the criticism that the pageant is frivolous in a world where hunger and war abound.

"With the chaos and trauma in the world right now, I think you need a very strong role model like Miss Universe to travel to countries and spread a message of peace," she said.

Miss Norway Kathrine Sorland agreed, adding: "I know people have criticized Miss Universe, Miss World and other beauty pageants, but we are a bunch of girls having fun, and this is a positive thing. I have no feelings of guilt, not at all."

Indian women dressed in multilayered skirts and embroidered blouses wore sashes with phony titles like "Miss War" and "Miss Missile." Carrying ears of corn, they shouted against the government for spending millions of dollars on the event instead of providing support for their crops.

The Indian demonstrators slapped a tall mannequin dressed as a beauty contestant with branches.

They screamed insults against Gutierrez, calling him "a liar," "a thief" and "corrupt," and protested against the government's plans to negotiate a free trade agreement with the United States.

Gutierrez, who led a rebellion against an unpopular president in 2000, warned his critics Monday that they were testing his patience.

"Don't overestimate my tranquility, my patience and my tolerance ... because I will not permit any unconstitutional decisions," he told reporters.

His opponents in Congress have demanded that he resign over a corruption scandal involving his closest aide and have threatened to impeach him if he does not. But he has refused, saying there are no constitutional grounds for his ouster.

Ecuador's powerful Indian movement, which helped get Gutierrez elected in November 2002, broke with him last year, accusing him of betraying his campaign promises to help the poor. Indian leaders have warned they will launch nationwide protests later this week and block highways around the country to force Gutierrez to resign.

Although Ecuadoreans have shown great enthusiasm and pride about hosting this year's Miss Universe contest, some critics have spoken out against the event.

"Do any readers remember the names of the last five Third World countries that hosted Miss Universe?" Raul Vallejo, an educator and writer, wrote in a newspaper column last week. "Can they say how much poverty has decreased and how much investment in education, health and social security has increased after the candidates packed up and left?"

The beauty pageant's organizers say they expect the event to be seen by 1.5 billion television viewers in 180 countries, including China for the first time this year. The two-hour pageant will devote 10 minutes to highlighting Ecuador's tourist attractions.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

APTV 06-01-04 0236EDT