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Has Colombia found its Obama?

An unconventional politician is trying to become Colombia's next president by mimicking Obama's tactics.

BOGOTA, Colombia — He got married on an elephant. He dispatched mimes into the streets to shame drivers into respecting pedestrians. He took a televised shower to demonstrate how citizens could conserve water.

There is no telling what Antanas Mockus might do should he become Colombia’s next president — a once far-fetched prospect that is becoming ever more likely as “Mockusmania” sweeps the country. The Green Party candidate is now polling neck-and-neck with former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, according to a Datexco poll last week.

Behind Mockus’ rapid rise in the polls is a campaign strategy that capitalizes on Colombia's unusual political juncture. He has turned his atypical characteristics into an advantage — and he’s done so by employing many of the same messages and tactics that Barack Obama used.

“Mockus represents much of what Obama did to American voters: someone who was going to change politics as usual,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.

He is running on a platform of anti-corruption and transparency, pledging meticulous oversight of public funds and a cultural transformation to reduce illegal practices. The two-time mayor of Bogota is remembered for dressing up as “Super Citizen” to teach residents to be more civil, asking Bogotanos to voluntarily pay more taxes, investing heavily in public transportation and cutting homicide rates almost by half.

But while Obama replaced a deeply unpopular president, the Colombian candidates are vying to succeed a president who enjoys 70 percent approval ratings. Alvaro Uribe is credited with bringing security to many parts of the country and beating back rebel groups.

By presenting himself as the candidate who is the next best thing to Uribe himself, Santos bet on locking in the presidency. But Uribe’s last term has been plagued by scandals, such as illegal wire-tappings and murders of civilians by the army.

“The people who rejected this series of things found where they could group together — in Mockus,” said Hector Riveros, Mockus’ campaign strategist and a former vice minister of the interior.

Mockus’ campaign identified a wide swath of the electorate who are moderate Uribistas and want to see his successful policies continued. But this group — about 25 percent of voters, Riveros estimates — also want fresh leadership and an end to politics rife with scandals and corruption.

Mockus has appealed to them not by being anti-Uribe, but by being what he calls “post-Uribe.” He promises to continue Uribe’s successful policies and maintain a firm hand with guerrilla groups, while ushering in a new form of governance and citizenry. His focus on education and social investment appeals to voters who increasingly care about more than security concerns.