By Paul Sussman for CNN
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(CNN) -- With the ballots in Sunday's Nicaraguan presidential election still being counted, former Marxist guerrilla Daniel Ortega looks close to a dramatic return to power at the third time of trying.
Although he has toned down his leftist rhetoric in recent years, an Ortega victory is nonetheless a result the U.S. is dreading, fearful he will join forces with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro in an anti-U.S. bloc of Latin American leaders.
Ortega first came to power in Nicaragua in 1979 as part of the five-person Junta of National Reconstruction that overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle (1925-1980.) He was elected President in 1985, before losing the 1990 presidential election to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.
He stood for re-election in 1996 and 2001, but lost on both occasions.
Now, however, 16 years after he was thrown out of office by voters tired of a vicious civil war with U.S.-backed Contra rebels, the mustachioed Sandinista leader is leading conservative rivals in opinion polls.
Although results have come in from less than 20 percent of polling stations, those that have been announced show Ortega with 40.8 percent of the vote, with his main Conservative rival, Harvard-educated former banker Eduardo Montealegre, on 32 percent.
Three other candidates -- Sandinista dissident Edmundo Jarquin, ruling party candidate Jose Rizo and former Contra rebel Eden Pastora -- are even further behind.
This is more than the 40 percent -- or 35 percent and a 5-point lead over his nearest rival -- Ortega would need to avoid a run-off.
If the result does go to a second round, however, Ortega would almost certainly lose as conservative voters rally behind his rival.
Born in 1946 to a middle-class family in La Libertad, Nicaragua, Ortega came from a staunchly anti-Somoza background (both his parents were imprisoned for opposition to the dictatorship.)
"We grew up in a situation where we didn't know what freedom or justice were, and therefore we didn't know what democracy was," Ortega has said.
"The people of Nicaragua were suffering oppression. This made us develop an awareness which eventually led us to commit ourselves to the struggle against the domination of the capitalists of our country in collusion with the U.S. government.
"There were no civic channels through which one might try to achieve change in our country, so we came to the conclusion that the only way to overthrow the dictatorship was through armed struggle."
By his own admission the defining influence on Ortega was Augusto Sandino (1895-1934), a guerrilla leader murdered by U.S.-backed Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia (father of future dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle.)
"My idol was Sandino," says Ortega, "And also Christ. I had a Christian upbringing, so I would say that my main early influences were a combination of Christianity, which I saw as a spur to change, and Sandinism."
In 1963 Ortega joined the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), which took its name from Sandino, and in 1967 became leader of the organization. He was imprisoned shortly thereafter, however, and only released in 1974.
Five years later, in 1979, he became part of the junta that ended the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, and in 1985 was elected president.
His period in power was marked by a vicious civil war with the U.S.-backed Contra rebels, a conflict that claimed 30,000 lives and saw Nicaragua effectively turned into a Cold War proxy battleground.
"We took power with great enthusiasm and a great desire to transform the country," Ortega says, "But also with the worry that we would have to confront the United States, something which we regarded as inevitable.
"It's not that we fell into a kind of geopolitical fatalism with regard to the United States, but historically speaking they have been interfering in our country since the last century, and so we said, "The Yankees will inevitably interfere. If we try to become independent, the United States will intervene."
It is this history of confrontation with America, coupled with a close association with both Cuba and the former Soviet Union, that has, in Washington, caused the prospect of an Ortega victory to ruffle so many feathers.
The U.S. embassy in Managua has already raised questions about the fairness of the election.
"We are receiving reports of some anomalies in the electoral process," an embassy spokesman told the Associated Press.
U.S. officials have warned that U.S. aid and investment will drop under Ortega and have been vocal in their backing of Montealegre.
Despite this, about a third of the Nicaraguan population support Ortega, frustrated by the failure of often corrupt pro-market governments to fight poverty.
Although the economy has stabilized under three straight conservative presidents, 8 of 10 Nicaraguans still live on $2 a day or less.
"He is the only one who looks out for the poor. All the others are just for the rich," said William Medina, a lawyer standing in line to vote at a Managua polling station.
On the other side of a bitter political divide, conservatives remember the bloodshed, rations, hyperinflation and hard-line policies that blighted the country under Sandinista rule. Far from alleviating poverty, they fear, an Ortega presidency will only herald a return to the chaos of the 1980s.
"All I learned from that time is to be frightened of the Sandinistas and to hate them," said Rolando Lopez, 44, in the northern mountain town of Esteli, which was a Sandinista stronghold in the revolution and saw fierce fighting in the 1980s.
Conservatives complain that Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has effectively bought votes for Ortega by sending cheap Venezuelan fertilizer and fuel to Sandinista-affiliated groups.
Sandinistas counter that Washington scared voters away from Ortega and unfairly backed Montealegre.
Ortega himself is trying to paper over these divides and to preach reconciliation. He has won the support of former Contra leaders, and a Spanish-language version of the John Lennon song "Give Peace a Chance" has blasted out at campaign rallies where he promised to help the poor.
While the U.S. and conservative Nicaraguans continue to express doubts, it would seem that the Cold War fighter has decided to at least pull a few of his punches.
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