Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is a divisive figure at home and abroad. His defeat was once a Cold War obsession for the U.S. He has risen, fallen and risen again.

Now the one-time Sandinista revolutionary is headed for victory Sunday in an election that his critics say could be the prelude to a presidency-for-life.

Since returning to power in 2007, the 65-year-old Ortega has boosted his popularity in Central America's poorest country with a combination of pork-barrel populism and support for the free-market economy he once opposed.

Now, riding on a populist platform and World Bank praise for his economic strategies, he seeks a third term _ his second consecutive one _ after the Sandinista majority on the Supreme Court overruled the term limits set by the Nicaraguan constitution.

With nearly 50 percent of voter support and an 18-point lead over his nearest challenger in the most recent poll, Ortega could end up with a mandate that would not only legitimize his re-election but allow him to make constitutional changes guaranteeing his perpetual stay in office.

To those who benefit most from his policies _ microcredit, farm aid, subsidies, bonuses for civil servants _ "It doesn't matter that he steps on judicial procedures, they just care that something is being done on a local level," said Federico Barriga of the Economist Intelligence Unit in London.

Ortega is one of several leftist leaders in Latin America, led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who have changed or dodged presidential term limits adopted by the democracies that emerged after decades of dictatorships and military rule. Former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a 2009 coup when his conservative opposition suspected he was trying to change the constitution to run again. Bolivia has also abolished term limits.

Ortega led the Sandinista movement that overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, and withstood a concerted effort by the U.S. government, which viewed him as a Soviet-backed threat, to oust him through a rebel force called the Contras.

The fiery, mustachioed leftist ruled through a junta, then was elected in 1984 but was defeated after a term characterized by authoritarian policies and an economy in shambles. After two more failed runs, he softened his rhetoric, took a free-market stance, and regained the presidency in the 2006 election.

To his supporters, he is just plain Daniel, while opponents say that in his new incarnation, he has espoused "Orteguismo," a politics of personality based on Christianity, socialism and free enterprise.

He's no Somoza, they say, but worry that this could change. Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a former Sandinista who has become one of Ortega's most outspoken critics, speaks of his "caudillo politics," using the Spanish term for strongman.

He believes that if he wins _ and especially if he captures more than half the vote _ "he will establish the principle of indefinite re-election" and will look to make constitional changes to make what he's doing legal.

"Ortega will go as far as the Nicaraguan people will allow him," Chamorro said. "The Somoza regime built its power by controlling the military. With his (Ortega's) new power, there's a risk that the military and police will be absorbed into his caudillo politics ... Then we would be repeating a similar pattern."

Ortega doesn't give interviews or news conferences, but he has said in campaign speeches that claims he will become president for life or another Somoza are lies and scare tactics. He said his poll numbers show that people are now voting without fear.

"No previous government has helped the people like we have," said Jacinto Suarez, Sandinista international relations secretary. "They promised heaven and paradise on earth and didn't do anything."

In 2009 the Supreme Court effectively removed term limits when it said Ortega could serve as president for multiple terms, separately or consecutively. The ruling stoked such passions that Ortega opponents threw eggs at one of the judges, while his supporters, some hurling fireworks, chased the U.S. ambassador from a public event because he called the change "improper."

In his most recent term, Ortega has built wide support among the youth and the poor in a country of 5.8 million people, more than 40 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day. He created dozens of programs giving microcredit, farm animals, transport subsidies, a popular zinc roof program and a $33 monthly bonus for government workers. Poverty and illiteracy rates have dropped slightly, while school enrollment is up, according to the International Foundation for Global Economic Challenges, a Nicaraguan nonprofit group.

"He's totally in solidarity with us poor people," said Andrea Benavidez, a 19-year-old mother of two in Managua, the capital. "I'm a Sandinista because of what Daniel has done for the youth. He has given us scholarships. He has built sports fields."

He also has maintained ties to the U.S. even as he has grown closer to Chavez, signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement and cultivated Nicaragua's large business sector. Per capita income, one of the lowest in Latin America, has grown steadily since 2006, according to the World Bank, which has praised Ortega's macroeconomic policies as "broadly favorable."

"There's a big difference between Ortega and Chavez: the recognition of the need for a vibrant private sector," said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "That's a radical difference from the Sandinistas of the 1980s ..."

Still, he has been helped immensely by Chavez, who according to estimates has provided at least $500 million a year in discounted oil and outright donations. Much of that aid is handled by Albanisa, a private company Ortega created that has been criticized for operating outside the government budget and public transparency. The International Monetary Fund, which also praises Ortega's economic policies, recently began requiring more transparency on the Chavez donations.

Ortega also is believed to funnel money through his Citizen Power Councils, groups of party loyalists created to monitor local governments, and the country is flooded with posters and propaganda bearing his image.

"It's a very clientelistic, topdown mechanism. If you support the Sandinistas you get them (the benefits), and if you don't, you don't," Arnson said.

Many warn his success comes at democracy's expense. Claims of widespread fraud in the 2008 municipal elections led Washington to cancel $62 million in development aid.

The 2006 election drew more than 18,000 election observers. This time election observation is much more difficult and local observers are being denied credentials. The European Union and the Organization of America States have negotiated access to Sunday's vote, but "There is no confidence, no guarantees, no legitimate process," said Roberto Courtney, director of Ethics and Transparency, a Nicaraguan advocacy group.

Ortega's popularity, however, has continually climbed, to 48 percent in the last CID-Gallup survey before the close of the campaigns. He leads his closest competitor, opposition radio station owner Fabio Gadea of the Liberal Independent Party, by 18 points. Conservative Arnoldo Aleman, a former president and perennial candidate, has 11 percent support in the poll taken between Oct. 10-17 with a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.

He only needs 35 percent of the vote and a 5-point lead over his nearest challenger to win outright and avoid a runoff.

"If you have half the population, those in the rural areas, benefiting from the Ortega regime, they don't care if he's re-elected three, four, five times. The same is true of the private sector, which is making a lot of money unde the Ortega regime," said Central American analyst Eduardo Stein, a former vice president of Guatemala.

"The matter of political democratic purism plays louder abroad than within the country," he said.

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Katherine Corcoran reported from Mexico City