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Jan 25 (Reuters) - Ecuador's leftist President Rafael Correa is the clear favorite to win a Feb. 17 election riding strong support from the low-income majority that has benefited from high state spending on welfare and infrastructure.
Here are some key facts about Correa and Ecuador:
* Correa was born in 1963 to a lower middle-class family in the port city of Guayaquil. He earned an economics degree from the local university before winning scholarships in Belgium and the United States, where he received his doctorate in 2001.
* He took office in 2007 promising a "Citizens' Revolution" to boost state revenue from Ecuador's natural resources and redistribute wealth among the poor.
* Correa defaulted on billions of dollars of foreign debt in 2008, a move that alienated foreign investors, but was applauded by locals. He backed the re-writing of Ecuador's constitution to tilt the balance of power towards the executive, and won re-election in 2009.
* After the default, Correa strengthened financial ties with China, and debt commitments to the Asian country total about $7.3 billion, including loans, advance payments for oil sales and energy project financing.
* A former economy minister, Correa has boosted spending on infrastructure and social welfare projects, which has made him popular among the poor in shanty towns and rural areas.
* High oil prices and increased tax revenues have allowed Correa to continue spending heavily in the months leading to the election, but he has acknowledged that the country is set to suffer badly if crude prices fall.
* The father of three with a Belgian wife comes across as a feisty leader who never shies away from a fight. He has taken on international bondholders, oil companies, local bankers, the Catholic Church and private media companies.
* His ongoing spat with local media has made Correa the target of freedom of expression advocates. He says local media are bent on presenting a bleak view of his government to woo voters to the opposition. He has sued several journalists and newspaper owners for libel, but pardoned them after winning the cases.
Some media freedom advocates say he wants to stamp out criticism of his policies in the media.
* Political foes denounce his style as "caudillismo," a term used in Latin America to describe governments led by strongmen who stamp out opposition to their rule. Though the opposition is divided, it has a slim majority in Congress. This has allowed it to block or delay legislation backed by Correa.
* Correa's relationship with Washington has been stormy. He expelled the U.S. ambassador in 2011 after U.S. diplomatic cables disclosed by WikiLeaks alleged that his government turned a blind eye on police corruption. In 2007, he refused to extend a lease letting the U.S. military use the Manta airbase for counter-narcotics flights, and in 2009 he expelled two U.S. Embassy officials in another case involving the police.
* He believes U.S. intelligence services are conspiring with his political rivals to undermine his rule. In an interview with Julian Assange last year, he told the Wikileaks' founder that they were both victims of persecution. He granted Assange political asylum on fears that the United States might want to extradite him, and the former computer hacker has been holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London since June.
* Correa has had a tumultuous relationship with foreign oil investors. In late 2010, he asked oil companies to sign less profitable service contracts or leave the country. Since then, foreign oil companies have not invested in exploration. Whereas oil output in neighboring Colombia is booming thanks to foreign investment, Ecuador has been producing around 500,000 barrels a day for the past five years.
* In the aftermath of a debt default, Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency in 2000. At the time, the country was gripped by a financial crisis that pushed poverty levels up to about 70 percent.
* Ecuador is a volcanic country of poor Andean villages, remote Amazon tribes, unspoiled beaches, huge banana plantations and bustling ports. The unique wildlife in its Galapagos Islands inspired Darwin's theory of evolution.
* Ecuador takes its name from the equator it straddles and has a population of 14.5 million people. A little larger in area than Britain, Ecuador is the smallest OPEC member and a leading banana exporter and is also a big exporter of coffee, shrimp and cocoa. (Reporting By Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Vicki Allen)