| SAN SALVADOR
SAN SALVADOR A former CNN journalist could lead a leftist party of former Cold War Marxist guerrillas to power for the first time in El Salvador's presidential election next year, opinion polls show.
Recent surveys by the University of Central America and CID-Gallup give ex-TV reporter and Salvadoran talk show host Mauricio Funes a lead of up to 20 points over ruling party candidate Rodrigo Avila, El Salvador's former police chief.
The left has never won an election in El Salvador, and picking a moderate candidate for the March 2009 vote reflects a determination by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, to shake off its Marxist roots.
The former rebels, who battled a series of U.S.-backed governments in a 1980-1992 civil war, has lost the last three presidential elections to the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA, which has been in power since 1989.
However, the FMLN has moved closer to the political center and now has the largest bloc in El Salvador's national assembly.
"Choosing Mauricio is a reflection of the changes in the FMLN," said Gerson Martinez, an FMLN lawmaker and a rebel during the civil war that killed 75,000 people.
Although much of Latin America has swung to the left in recent years, the FMLN's violent past kept it from winning the presidency. Its candidates scored highly in polls throughout the last three presidential campaigns but were defeated by ARENA on election day.
The FMLN's hardline former leader Schafik Handal ran for president in 2004 but lost to conservative U.S. ally Tony Saca. El Salvador is one of the United States' closest allies in Latin America and sent troops to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Leadership changes since Handal's death in 2006 have made the FMLN more palatable to swing voters, analysts say.
Meanwhile, Saca has struggled to curb gang violence and convert economic growth into tangible gains for the poor. He is also unpopular for supporting the war in Iraq.
The FMLN sees Funes, 48, with his clean-cut look of cropped hair and slick glasses, capitalizing on discontent with Saca, even if his message of change is short on details.
Funes has become a familiar face as a political commentator on Salvadoran television after presenting an interview program that was generally critical of the government. He also worked as a correspondent for international news channel CNN.
Already under attack from El Salvador's conservative media, Funes, who left CNN last year to focus on politics, is a friend of Brazil's leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. He says that, like Lula, he respects financial markets and private investment but wants more justice for the poor.
"It's a myth that a FMLN victory would mean the end of private companies and private property," Funes told Reuters recently.
He also says he would open diplomatic ties with China if he wins the election. El Salvador is one of only a handful of countries that recognize Taiwan instead of mainland China.
(Editing by Kieran Murray)