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Nicaragua leftist Ortega on a roll but not home yet

CHINANDEGA, Nicaragua, (Reuters) - Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega is being greeted with wild enthusiasm at carnival-like rallies as he cranks up his campaign for Nicaragua's presidency, buoyed by a solid lead that worries Washington.

Leftist Ortega was met with quasi-religious fervor when his caravan of flashing lights, fireworks and pumping music rolled into the tropical town of Chinandega this week.

Two polls released this week predicted him winning in the first round on Nov. 5, the latest on Friday by Zogby International giving him 35 percent support or a 15-point lead over his nearest rival, conservative Eduardo Montealegre.

Ortega's Sandinista National Liberation Front led a popular uprising which removed the Somoza family dictatorship in 1979.

He ruled Nicaragua through the 1980s. During most of the Sandinista government, Nicaragua fought U.S-backed Contra rebels in a civil war that killed 30,000 people before Ortega was voted out in 1990.

He says he is less radical now, and his running mate is an ex-Contra leader. Still, Ortega promises greater state control over the economy and is also an ally of Venezuela's U.S.-bashing President Hugo Chavez. U.S. officials are nervous.

Ortega has a hard-core group of supporters, but polls show that for every two bandanna-wearing Ortega fans, there are three voters who remember the hardships of the Sandinista years too well to let him return.

Still, a split among Nicaragua's ruling conservatives has allowed Ortega to become the front-runner.

Buoyed by his lead, Ortega is campaigning hard.

At the rally in Chinandega, supporters waved black-and-red Sandinista flags as Ortega told them he was ahead, but he warned of overconfidence.

"Be careful of traps. The trap of making us think we are already there so that a load of people will not go to vote," Ortega said.

"Until the harvest is in you mustn't neglect it," he told his followers, many of whom grow bananas or sesame seeds in the tropical Pacific coast lowlands.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez warned this week that an Ortega victory could scare off foreign investors and hurt Nicaragua by derailing a regional free trade accord.

"There is a big danger," he told reporters in Managua by telephone. "It would be a shame to put this treaty at risk."

Washington is losing hope that conservatives will regroup to block Ortega's return, amid bitter sparring and political differences between the main candidates.

Ortega's closest rivals are the ruling party's Jose Rizo, a prominent coffee farmer, and Washington's favorite Montealegre, who is close to outgoing President Enrique Bolanos.

If Ortega is unable to win in the first round, he will face a tough run-off because combined support for the conservatives matches Ortega's.

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