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Ortega sheds rebel past, dons pastels

Former Nicaraguan revolutionary is neck and neck with his top rival in Sunday's poll.

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He's six hours late. But no one seems to notice.

Tens of thousands have crammed into the central plaza this evening, chanting, singing, and dancing. The wooden stage is occupied by perky cheerleaders in yellow skirts, and is festooned with banana fronds and the American flag.

When one of the most controversial politicians in Nicaraguan history finally steps onto the stage runway (wearing a mauve shirt), women shriek and swoon.

Ricky Martin, he's not. But don't tell that to Daniel Ortega's supporters.

A revolutionary-turned-president, Mr. Ortega ruled this small Central American nation from the Sandinista revolution victory in 1979 until he was voted out of power in 1990.

After more than two decades of political life and with the presidential elections only two days away, Ortega is closer than ever to making one of the most unlikely political comebacks of all time.

"The Sandinistas sparked a revolution that brought democracy and elections to this country, and that is why the Sandinistas deserve a second chance," Ortega says in an brief interview, moments before a young woman interrupts to ask him to autograph her pants.

Locked in a virtual tie with Enrique Bolaños, the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) candidate and one-time vice president under current President Arnoldo Alemán, Ortega may just get that second chance.

But if Ortega is an idol and a hero for some, he is reviled by about just as many others. After the Sandinista-led revolution toppled the Somoza family dictatorship in 1979, the United States backed the Contra rebels in their attempt to overthrow the Soviet-backed Marxist Sandinistas.

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