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As Peru's Fujimori splits voters, race is on for runner-up

LIMA (Reuters) - With a surname and history that spark fury among some Peruvians and adoration among others, center-right presidential contender Keiko Fujimori has managed to stay atop a turbulent field of candidates.

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But while the 40-year-old daughter of imprisoned ex-president Alberto Fujimori has had the unswerving support of about a third of Peruvians for the past two years, she faces growing opposition that will likely keep her short of the simple majority needed to win outright when Peruvians go to the polls on Sunday.

The chance to face her in a second round in June has fueled a hotly-disputed contest for runner-up, with two main rivals with radically different platforms jousting for the support of millions of undecided voters.

“I change my mind every half hour,” said Felix Castillo, a 39-year-old security guard, part of what pollster Ipsos estimated on Sunday was a whopping 40 percent of the electorate that had not committed to any candidate.

This year’s race has been jolted by the unprecedented barring of two leading candidates - prompting the head of the Organization of American States to warn elections would be “semi-democratic” and stoking suspicions the move unfairly favored Fujimori.

Another seven candidates have voluntarily dropped out of the initial line-up of 19. Fujimori’s opponents, lacking a strong anti-Fujimori candidate to rally behind, have staged protests that upended her campaigning twice.

In a late surge, 35-year-old leftist lawmaker Veronika Mendoza has swept up the most support from undecided voters with promises of “radical change” to the free-market economic model of the past quarter century - momentum that has sent shivers through the local currency and stock markets.

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Mendoza wants to ramp up spending, hike taxes and make Peru, set to become the world’s second-biggest copper supplier this year, less dependent on the global mining companies that she says deserve tougher environmental policing. “We don’t think we should keep being a mere warehouse of rocks and raw materials,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza edged up slightly in a Datum poll seen by a source on Thursday, but remained statistically tied with septuagenarian former World Bank economist Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Peru’s select stock index fell by more than 2 percent on the news.

Kuczynski has defended mining and pledged to slash red tape while beefing up private investments in infrastructure to drive growth that has slowed at the end of a decade-long commodities boom.

Despite repeated promises to avoid the authoritarian ways of her father - now in prison for human rights abuses and corruption - Fujimori has failed to soften opposition to her candidacy.

“All I know is I’m going to vote against Keiko in the second round,” said Diego Cano, a 23-year-old engineer.

Tens of thousands of Fujimori’s opponents took to the streets Tuesday in the biggest political protest in Lima since rallies against Alberto Fujimori in 2000 as he tried to start a controversial third term after elections widely considered fraudulent.

The race could become even more polarizing in a run-off.

“Everyone has the right to express their position,” Fujimori said afterward. She has remained upbeat throughout the campaign, leaving her rivals to duke it out as she brushes off their attacks.

Reporting By Mitra Taj and Teresa Cespedes; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Alistair Bell