* Leftist leader is 32 points ahead of rival, poll says
* Opposition fragmented, lacks a charismatic leader
By Eduardo Garcia
QUITO, Nov 10 Ecuador's President Rafael Correa
launched his re-election bid on Saturday for a February vote
likely to give him a new four-year term to continue boosting
state control over the Andean nation's economy.
Government spending on roads, hospitals and schools has made
the 49-year-old U.S.-educated economist very popular with the
poor majority, and he is well ahead of rivals in opinion polls.
The opposition is divided and lacks a charismatic leader.
Victory in the Feb. 17 vote would give the socialist Correa
a mandate for rolling out more reforms to increase state
revenues from the oil and mining sectors. But dependency on oil
exports in OPEC's smallest member is his Achilles heel, and he
may be forced to reduce state spending should oil prices fall.
"We've done a lot but there's a lot more to be done, to turn
this bourgeois state into a truly popular state that would serve
everyone, especially the poor ... that's why we accept this
nomination," Correa said in front of thousands of supporters
after the ruling Alianza Pais coalition endorsed his candidacy
at a raucous meeting in a Quito football stadium.
"We've got a president, we've got Rafael," chanted his
supporters, many of whom were wearing neon-green shirts, the
color of the party.
In power since 2007 and a member of a Latin American leftist
bloc led by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Correa has given the state
a key role in a small economy very dependent on oil and bananas.
Casting his movement as a "Citizens' Revolution," Correa has
viciously battled political adversaries whom he disparages as an
elite that monopolized power for decades.
Critics say Correa has grabbed too much power and clamped
down on media freedom. They accuse him of scaring off foreign
investors with a 2008 debt default, and failing to diversify the
economy from its dependence on oil exports.
Correa chose strategic sectors minister Jorge Glas as his
running mate, because vice president Lenin Moreno, who is in a
wheelchair, declined to run again for health reasons.
Correa infuriated Washington this year by granting asylum to
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who published hundreds of
thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables.
Assange, who is wanted for questioning over sexual assault
and rape allegations in Sweden, has been in Ecuador's embassy in
London since June.
High oil prices have fueled economic growth since 2010, and
Correa has brought stability to the politically volatile nation.
Three presidents were forced to resign due to widespread
protests during the decade before he took office.
A survey by pollster Cedatos shows Correa winning 55 percent
of votes, 32 percentage points more than his closest rival,
Guillermo Lasso, a banker from the coastal city Guayaquil.
Lasso, who is running on a platform of lower taxes and
incentives to private investors to boost job creation, will have
difficulty in denting Correa's support among the poor.
"Lasso is seriously stigmatized because he's a banker, that's
the main thing he'll have to struggle with," said Paulina
Recalde, head of local pollster Perfiles de Opinion.
Ecuadoreans blame banks for a 1999 financial crisis that
forced Ecuador to adopt the dollar as its currency the following
year and meant thousands of account holders lost their savings.
But Lasso has plenty of funds to finance a flashy campaign,
and his marketing team has put him in the media spotlight.
"Lasso has credibility, inspires sympathy and has a low
rejection rate," Recalde said.
Other candidates are former president Lucio Gutierrez;
Alberto Acosta, a former Correa ally; and Alvaro Noboa, a banana
magnate who will run for the presidency for the fifth time.
Some of them had discussed choosing a single candidate in
the style of Venezuela's opposition, which staged a united
though unsuccessful challenge to Chavez by rallying behind
Henrique Capriles. But the plan never took off because none of
them wanted to step out of the race.
Correa's strongarm governing style is popular among people
in rural areas in the Andean highlands and sprawling shanty
towns in the outskirts of Guayaquil and Quito.
He has more than doubled state spending as a percentage of
gross domestic product and uses media broadcasts to attack
rivals and berate officials for dragging behind schedule on
public works, be it an airport or sewage system in a small town.
"I want all the public works to continue, and he needs
another term in office to do that ... My grandparents say that
in their lifetime, he's the only president that has worked
exclusively for the poor," said Elma Lincango, a 36-year-old
nurse outside a hospital in northern Quito.