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Colombia after Uribe

Former defense minister, who hails from a family of influential journalists and politicians, is the leading contender to become Colombia's next president.

Colombian presidential candidate and former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos gives a speech during a campaign rally in Bogota, March 6, 2010. (Fredy Builes/Reuters)

BOGOTA, Colombia — Although he has yet to receive a single vote, Juan Manuel Santos carries himself with the swagger of a president.

Thanks to his close alliance with Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s immensely popular outgoing president, Santos stands as the frontrunner heading into the May 30 first-round election.

A long-time figure in Colombian politics, Santos, 58, became a serious contender following his dramatic three-year stint as Uribe’s defense minister.

Santos directed a string of military raids that helped give the Colombian armed forces the upper hand in the long-running guerrilla war. These operations led to the capture or deaths of several top rebel leaders as well as the rescue of 15 guerrilla-held hostages, including three U.S. military contractors.

Improved security opened the door for new local and foreign investment and several years of solid economic growth. All of this has positioned Uribe as one of Colombia’s most successful presidents of the past century and some of his popularity has rubbed off on Santos.

“The Colombian people aren’t stupid,” Santos said in an interview at his well-guarded campaign headquarters in an upscale Bogota neighborhood. “They want continuity. We have to finish the job that President Uribe started.”

Several recent polls give Santos a comfortable lead over a half-dozen rival candidates. Another sign of his support was the outcome of the March 14 congressional election, which was dominated by Santos’ right-wing U Party.

Santos, who hails from a family of influential journalists and politicians, seems to have been grooming himself for the presidency his entire life.

His grandfather was president from 1938 to 1942 while his cousin, Francisco Santos, is the current vice president. The Santos family founded El Tiempo, Colombia’s most influential newspaper, while one of the candidate’s nephews edits Semana, Colombia’s largest newsmagazine.

After studying at Kansas and Harvard, Santos returned to Colombia. Between stints as an editor at El Tiempo, he served as foreign trade and treasury minister in previous governments then took over the defense portfolio for Uribe in 2006.

Although Santos has held powerful government positions, he’s never tested his support in an election and victory in the presidential race is hardly a sure thing.

If Santos fails to win more than 50 percent of the ballots in next month’s first round election — as current polls indicate — the top two vote-getters will meet in a June 20 run-off.

That could mean a showdown with Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus, the former Bogota mayor who is the darling of Colombian intellectuals and independents due to his reputation as an honest leader. Mockus has moved up to second place in most opinion polls.