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Ortega might just win this time around

By Aneesh Raman
CNN
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. CNN correspondent Aneesh Raman recently traveled with Ortega during an election swing.

MANAGUA, Nicaragua (CNN) -- On Sunday, just two days before the U.S. midterm elections, the man President Reagan called the "Little Dictator," the man involved in a civil war that left tens of thousands dead, the man who brought massive economic devastation to Nicaragua, could become that nation's leader again.

Daniel Ortega is back. Big time.

It's not just that Ortega is back that has the world watching this election. He has tried unsuccessfully before to regain the power he lost in 1990. The difference: This time, he might just win.

Ortega's main competitors are Eduardo Montealegre, a Harvard-educated banker whom many think the United States would like to see win, and Edmundo Jarquin, an economist.

The Sandinista leader is counting on the country's impoverished citizens to vote for him.

I traveled with Ortega a few days ago as he rode through some of the poorest villages in Nicaragua. Ortega, now 60, rarely stops to talk to the people and would do no interviews. He just drives through but those along the way do not seem to mind. Running alongside his caravan, kids and adults alike push to get close to the man once called "El Comandante."

They threw white envelopes to him. Each carried the wishes of a poor villager: Money for their home, money for their kids' education, money for the farm. And many people told us, in most cases the wishes got answered quickly, thanks to Ortega and his campaign.

Concern over Ortega's circle of friends

But an estimated 70 percent of Nicaraguans want him nowhere near the presidency.

They are worried about what he will do to an economy just starting to recover from the last time he was in office. It has taken, experts say, 16 years and $15 billion in aid for Nicaragua to get back to production levels of 1977. And even with that aid, the country remains the second poorest in its hemisphere.

Adding to the concern are Ortega's own words, repeatedly saying, "The poor cannot wait and on November 5, they will bury savage capitalism in Nicaragua." Nobody is quite sure what that will mean in practical terms, but Ortega has been talking up nationalizing certain industries.

Another cause for concern is Ortega's circle of friends. It's widely believed Ortega's campaign is financially backed in part by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Ortega sees Fidel Castro as a mentor of sorts. And the list of his potential allies -- if he wins -- reads like a who's who of the global anti-America club.

As one of his opponents told me, "Ortega hasn't changed, same man with the same politics. His friends haven't changed. He's friends of Castro, he's friends of Chavez, of the president of Iran."

So contentious is this race, and so central is Ortega to it, that another figure from the 1980s came to Nicaragua in recent days. Oliver North, in charge of the American operation to fund Contra rebels fighting Ortega during Nicaragua's civil war, spoke at an anti-Ortega rally last week.

There he warned of "the risk of returning to the days of an authoritarian and ruthless government."

Ortega has tried and failed three times to get elected again, but this time there are two things going for him: numbers and a split opposition.

To win the presidency in Nicaragua, you don't need a majority. You just need 40 percent of the vote.

Or -- and this is more likely -- you win if you get 35 percent of the vote and your closest opponent doesn't come within five points. For the first time since trying to get re-elected, the opposition against Ortega is split, taking votes from each other and paving the way for Ortega's potential return to power.

Many Nicaraguans wonder what their lives might look like come November 6. Aida Moyorga is one of them. I met her an hour outside the capital. In many respects, she embodies the hope of post-war Nicaragua.

Ten years ago she started a clothing line with one sewing machine in her home. Now she has 40 workers, a warehouse and is exporting to Costa Rica and the United States. Things are just starting to take off but she says she thinks an Ortega win could hurt business.

"We have seen clients abroad scared that the government will not let us work in peace, so there is a lot of uncertainty," she said.

But the extreme poor, the 30 percent-strong base of support that Ortega has maintained over the years, say he is the only one who will fight for them. And now he might just get the chance to prove if that is the case.

So as the United States counts the days to the midterms, it will keep an eye on the election in Nicaragua. Another Ortega presidency is just what the White House doesn't want right now.

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Ortega is hoping the nation's poor will put him in power, saying they can't wait to "bury savage capitalism."

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