The last time France voted for president, Francois Hollande was a portly, smiley man likened to custard pudding who played second fiddle to Segolene Royal, his Socialist party's candidate and the mother of his four kids.

Now he's the party's candidate, and on the brink of an improbable electoral triumph — an increasingly statesmanlike figure with a trim waistline, stern frown, and promising future who waged a tough debate this week with the air of, well, a president.

Hollande still has to beat conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy in their election runoff Sunday. But even on the very off chance that Hollande defies polls and loses, he will have made a remarkable transformation.

In a picture-perfect campaign rally Thursday in front of a sunset in southern France, Hollande declared confidently that he's "ready to lead the country."

Ambitious words for a guy once dubbed as soft as a strawberry — and that by a fellow Socialist. Others called him a marshmallow. A popular satirical puppet show, Les Guignols de l'Info, depicted him as a flan custard, a wide-eyed simpleton eternally unable to make up his mind.

As boss of the Socialist Party from 1997-2008, he was often seen as a mouthpiece for the more vigorous and dynamic party elders. The party nearly disintegrated under his watch.

As the Socialists geared up for the 2007 elections, Hollande's then-partner Royal was overwhelmingly more popular. One poll put support for her at 42 percent; for him, just 12. He was ridiculed as "Monsieur Royal" during his partner's campaign, and their relationship fell apart.

Throughout Sarkozy's presidency, Hollande was in the shadows as a potential challenger.

But the Socialists had their hearts set on someone else for the party nomination: now-disgraced former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. After Strauss-Kahn's political career melted down amid sexual scandals, regular-old Hollande started looking better and better.

He cut down on the burgers and trimmed the tummy. He ditched his round and friendly specs for squared-off, frameless ones.

His pledges to be a "normal" president struck a chord with a populace worried about the future. Other, more charismatic challengers emerged, then fell victim to Hollande's slow but steady campaign.

On Wednesday, the transformation looked complete.

In a televised debate with Sarkozy — a man with a sometimes venomous tongue who reportedly threatened to "atomize" his challenger — Hollande stood his ground. To Sarkozy's every volley, Hollande had a riposte. No holds were barred, and no one lost.

"No one really knew Francois Hollande, no one really suspected the strength that he could have. And we have discovered it," Hollande biographer Serge Raffy told The Associated Press on Thursday.

At Hollande's last big rally in Toulouse on Thursday, retiree Daniel Troupeau agreed: "Francois Hollande was up to it. He was very aggressive mostly, but he knew what to answer back. He had the allure of a grand president."

Known for his sense of humor, Hollande has toned down the jocularity and turned up the fighting words during the campaign.

At the Toulouse rally, he sarcastically dismissed Sarkozy's "modesty, restraint and reserve" in the debate, then made his real point, slicing his hands in the air as he did so: "You will rip victory from the hands of the right, to offer it to all the people!"


Masha Macpherson in Toulouse and Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.