By Eduardo Garcia
QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, one of Latin America's most outspoken leftist leaders, is almost certain to win re-election on Sunday thanks to heavy state spending that has benefited the poor.
The pugnacious and combative U.S.-trained economist has won strong support by using windfall oil earnings to give cash handouts to some 2 million people and expand access to healthcare and education.
Correa has a lead of as much as 50 percentage points over the nearest of his seven rivals in opinion polls.
"I notice the changes. I've benefited from initiatives to help small companies. My relatives are getting subsidies for the handicapped. Those are facts, not words," Luis Paredes, a 38-year-old who runs a small business repairing office furniture, said at a Correa rally in Quito.
Correa's confrontation with oil companies and Wall Street investors has helped him drum up nationalist fervor, but his impulsive outbursts and refusal to brook dissent have also led critics to describe him as a power-hungry authoritarian.
He took a leave of absence from the presidency to focus on campaigning, and for the past six weeks he has been tirelessly visiting windswept Andean hamlets, sweltering Amazon towns and urban slums in the country of 15 million.
"We already have a president, we have Rafael!" is a common chant at his campaign rallies. His rivals mostly drive through shantytowns in convoys, while saturating local media with campaign ads.
Three respected pollsters show the 49-year-old Correa, who caught the world's attention last year by granting asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, as the clear front runner.
The Perfiles de Opinion polling firm recently showed him with 62 percent support. To avoid a second round, Correa needs to win 50 percent of the vote or 40 percent with a lead of 10 percentage points over the second-placed candidate.
Correa has been in power for six years and a victory on Sunday would give him another four years. In the decade before he came to office, three presidents were ousted by military coups and street protests.
His re-election could help shore up the ALBA bloc of left-wing leaders in Latin America. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been the anti-American group's undisputed leader, but he is fighting cancer and may not be able to hang onto power.
Supporters admire Correa's unflinching style of government, but others are put off by his impetuous manner and his penchant for confrontation with reporters and bankers.
"People say he's arrogant and mean, but he gets things done," said political science professor Franklin Ramirez. "The key is that people can see the difference between political instability and a paralysis of the state in the past, with the extraordinary dynamism they see nowadays."
BANKER LEADS CHALLENGERS
Guillermo Lasso, a former banker and Correa's closest rival, has tried to woo voters with promises that he will lower taxes and foster private-sector growth.
Lasso, who as a teenager worked at a local stock exchange to pay for school and went on to lead one of Ecuador's largest banks, calls Correa a follower of "franchise socialism" that copies policies that Lasso says have failed in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America.
But the recent poll by Perfiles de Opinion showed Lasso has failed to cut into Correa's support and he is expected to win just 9 percent of the vote.
The six other opposition candidates run the gamut from former Correa ally Alberto Acosta, a leftist with a strong environmental agenda, to banana magnate and five-time presidential candidate Alvaro Noboa.
Adversaries say constitutional changes that Correa pushed through in 2008 allowed him to reshape state institutions to boost his power while placing allies in key posts. They accuse him of using a referendum to bypass a hostile Congress on an overhaul of the justice system.
Opponents also allege that Correa has accumulated power and persecuted private media in an ongoing dispute that has included launching several libel suits against critical newspapers and reporters. Correa insists he is a victim of the media.
He ended a 2012 interview by WikiLeaks' Assange with the phrase "Welcome to the club of the persecuted," comparing his own experience with the media to the former computer hacker's battle to avoid extradition from Britain.
Correa granted Assange political asylum to help him avoid being sent to Sweden where he is wanted for questioning in a sexual assault case. Assange is still holed up in Ecuador's embassy in London, unable to leave.
If Correa wins on Sunday, his main challenge will be to win over investors who have turned their backs on Ecuador. In 2008, Correa's government defaulted on $3.2 billion in foreign debt and in 2010 he forced oil companies to sign new contracts giving more revenue to the government.
As a result, direct foreign investment has generally been less than $1 billion a year, whereas neighboring Peru and Colombia received $7.7 billion and $13 billion respectively in 2011.
A major test will come this year in negotiations with Canada's Kinross to develop a large gold deposit, which could kick-start Ecuador's nascent mining industry.
Successfully navigating that deal would prove Correa is sufficiently pragmatic to reach a compromise with foreign companies, despite his anti-business rhetoric.
In the long term, Ecuador needs to reduce its reliance on oil revenue. For decades its economy has been at the mercy of crude prices.
Bernardo Acosta, an economics professor at the state-run San Francisco University, says Ecuador is even more vulnerable now because Correa has been spending too heavily.
"There's social progress, but citizens and businesses in Ecuador should think about the future, not only the present," Acosta said. "State spending and economic growth still depend on something we can't control: oil prices. If oil prices were to fall, Ecuador will be in economic dire straits."
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Valencia; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Kieran Murray; desking by Christopher Wilson)