TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — He talks about easing the political restrictions imposed by Iranian authorities. He tells crowds that rebuilding ties with Western governments is better than denouncing them as irreconcilable enemies.
At a rally Monday, crowds gathered for candidate Hasan Rowhani broke out in chants for the release of political prisoners.
Suddenly, the accidental envoy of Iran's besieged reformists in Friday's presidential election seems to be awakening — even if briefly and sporadically — an opposition energy that has been largely stamped down after years of crackdowns. That is jolting authorities who once felt they were in full control of the ballot and the eventual outcome.
Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator, was among the eight canidates left standing last month when Iran's election overseers chopped down the list of would-be hopefuls. Among those cut was Rowhani's mentor and candidate-of-choice for many moderates, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Iran's ruling clerics left a candidate list largely stacked with loyalists favored by both the theocracy and its powerful protectors, the Revolutionary Guard.
But a jumble of fast-tracks strategy sessions among reform-minded leaders over the race and the possibility of converging behind Rowhani suggests their camp has not given up hope.
"It's become more than just about whether Rowhani will do well or not," said Mustafa Alani, a regional analyst at the Gulf Research Center based in Geneva. "It's about an idea. That idea is whether Iran's moderates and reformers are still capable of coming together and making themselves heard."
In the northwestern city of Oroumieh, Rowhani backers chanted the name of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been under house arrest since early 2011 for leading massive protests claiming he was denied the presidency by vote rigging four years ago. The crowds also called for all political detainees to be freed.
In apparent homage to Mousavi's now-crushed Green Movement, Rowhani's campaign has adopted its own signature color, purple.
Rowhani — the only cleric in the race — is still a long shot to succeed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose disputed re-election in 2009 unleashed the worst domestic unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Beyond shaping the candidates' list, Iranian authorities also have kept an extremely tight lid on any possible dissent, keeping close watch for impromptu political rallies and trying to further choke off the Internet.
That alone might seem to seal the decision. But Rowhani's profile has been steadily rising as liberals and others refused to bow out quietly — as Iran's leaders may have hoped after blocking the elder statesman Rafsanjani.
Rowhani represents an important test for Iran's broad spectrum of alternative voices, ranging from moderates who want less confrontation with the West to hardened opposition groups at odds with the Islamic system as a whole. Rowhani's backers now must figure out tactics to revive enough reformist energy to give him a credible run.
"It's not going to be easy," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the Middle East Studies program at Syracuse University. "There are a lot of variables in the mix."
Among them: Coaxing votes from the many people who have vowed to boycott the election after Rafsanjani's rejection. Also, a significant number of former opposition backers say they are now more interested in a capable fiscal steward such as Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf as Iran's economy sinks under international sanctions and alleged mismanagement.
Rowhani, too, has been left in a kind of political holding pattern by his most powerful allies.
Rafsanjani and former reformist President Mohammad Khatami have so far withheld a public endorsement, possibly waiting until the last minute in attempts to keep rivals off balance.
Meanwhile, meetings have been held over a possible withdrawal of the other moderate candidate, Khatami's former vice president, Mohammad Reza Aref, in a bid to consolidate forces. A statement on Aref's official Twitter account said he was staying in the race. Discussions appear to be put on hold as a way to avoid a similar all-for-one response by conservative rivals.
But hard-liners made the first move Monday.
Parliament member Gholam Ali Haddad Adel was quoted by state TV as saying he was getting out of the race because he wanted to "avoid the defeat" of his political allies. Adel was considered to be far back in the pack among the eight candidates and his withdrawal is not expected to significantly change the election equation. Among those seen as leading contenders is the current top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili.
Rowhani's opponents also may have been behind a report late Sunday, carried by semiofficial Iranian news agencies, that he could be pulled from the ballot because of increasing chants at campaign events for Mousavi and other opposition figures.
A spokesman for the Guardian Council, which vets all candidates, said Monday there were no plans to consider disqualifying Rowhani.
In another apparent sign of worry about Rowhani's momentum, a senior representative of Khamenei wrote that the "scattered" pro-establishment candidates should unite now and not wait for rivals. "The time is now," wrote Hossein Shariatmadari in a commentary Monday in the hardline daily Kayhan.
Conservative cleric Hossein Ebrahimi called an Aref-Rowhani coalition as "dangerous" and could lead to the presidency falling back into "reformist hands," according to the semiofficial ISNA news agency.
Rowhani has tried to keep his message to a broad sweep: That less confrontational policies would allow Iran to advance its nuclear program while easing Western concerns and allowing for sanctions to be rolled back. Although all key decisions in Iran are ultimately in the hands of the ruling clerics, Rowhani's ties to the influential Rafsanjani could give him more latitude to sway viewpoints if elected.
"We won't let the past eight years be continued," he told Tehran rally on Saturday in a direct dig at Ahmadinejad. "They brought sanctions for the country. Yet, they are proud of it. I'll pursue a policy of reconciliation and peace. We will also reconcile with the world."
Rowhani took over as nuclear negotiator in 2003, a year after Iran's 20-year-old nuclear program was revealed. Iran later temporarily suspended all uranium enrichment-related activities to avoid possible sanctions from the U.N. Security Council.
Ahmadinejad strongly opposed any such concessions. He also had carry-over friction with Rowhani, who backed his mentor Rafsanjani against Ahmadinejad in the 2005 race. Rowhani resigned as nuclear negotiator and head of the Supreme National Security Council after a few testy postelection meetings with Ahmadinejad.
"We will open all the locks fastened upon people's lives during the past eight years," Rowhani said during a speech earlier this month.
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.