MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Daniel Ortega insists he has changed from the days when he was a Marxist fighting a U.S.-backed insurgency. The balding, 60-year-old former Nicaraguan president has toned down his fiery rhetoric and is even promising to keep good relations with the White House.
Even though Ortega looked set Tuesday to regain the country's top office with a commanding lead over four challengers, he refrained from declaring victory before the official announcement.
"No one wins until the electoral council says so," Ortega said after meeting former President Carter, who served as an observer of Sunday's election.
Washington has made it clear it isn't thrilled at the prospect of its Cold War foe returning to power. But in an interview released by the State Department Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States would respect the decision of the Nicaraguan people and see what policies the next government follows before making decisions about future relations.
With more than 60 percent of the vote counted, the Sandinista leader had 39 percent, an eight-point lead over wealthy banker Eduardo Montealegre. Three other challengers were trailing, and former Contra rebel Eden Pastora bowed out after results showed him in last place.
If his comeback is confirmed, Ortega would join a growing number of left-leaning Latin American rulers.
"This is good for the people of Nicaragua and for the integration of Latin America," Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque told The Associated Press on Monday.
Ortega's supporters celebrated in the streets, with caravans of hundreds of cars filing into the capital, honking, waving party flags and blasting the Sandinista campaign song, set to the tune of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance."
Many Nicaraguans worry Ortega's return to power will drive away the country's business leaders and elite, as did his first time in power in 1985.
"We're just trying to figure out which country to go to," said Karen Sandoval, a 27-year-old Coca-Cola marketer shopping with a friend at an upscale Managua mall. "This sets the country back 20 years."
But Herberto Jose Lopez, who earns about $235 a month selling CDs from a kiosk, said he voted for Ortega in hopes that he would help Nicaragua's poor.
"I've got a wife and kid and I'm lucky because I have a job, but most people will tell you the same thing: The current administration just governs for the guys in ties," said the 32-year-old Lopez.
Ortega says he has changed profoundly since he befriended Soviet leaders, expropriated land and fought the U.S.-backed Contra rebels in a war that left 30,000 dead and the economy in shambles.
He toned down his once fiery rhetoric during the campaign, promising to support the Central American Free Trade Agreement and even maintain good relations with Washington.
Today he often appears more preacher than revolutionary, calling for peace and reconciliation and urging his supporters to pray.
An Ortega victory would cap a 16-year quest to return to his old job. Ortega lost the presidency in 1990, ending Sandinista rule and the Contra war. He has run for president in every election since.
Ortega's vote percentage was similar to what he received in his last two failed presidential bids, but the right was divided this time between Montealegre and ruling party candidate Jose Rizo. The constitution allowed him to win on the first round with only 35 percent of the vote and a lead of five percentage points over his closest rival.
Electoral observers have said the vote was mostly peaceful and orderly, despite long lines and angry confrontations by people who said polling stations closed before they could vote. Observers from the Organization of American States said 2 percent of potential voters weren't able to cast a ballot, and they estimated turnout around 70 percent.
The race generated intense international interest, including a visit by Oliver North, the former White House aide at the heart of the Iran-Contra controversy, which created a huge scandal when it emerged that Washington secretly sold arms to Iran and used the money to arm the Contras.
These days, U.S. money is flowing to Nicaragua in the form of investments by foreign companies drawn by the country's cheap labor, low crime rates and recent decision to join the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
Nicaraguan presidents cannot serve consecutive terms, and President Enrique Bolanos steps down Jan. 10.