Feb 17 (Reuters) - Ecuador's leftist president, Rafael Correa, was a clear favorite to win re-election on Sunday, thanks to strong support from the poor majority that has benefited from hefty state spending on welfare projects 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 toward the executive and won re-election in 2009.
* Following the default, Correa strengthened financial ties with China. Debt commitments to Beijing now 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, making him popular with poor voters from urban shantytowns to rural hamlets.
* High global oil prices and increased tax revenue let him continue spending heavily in the months leading up to the election, but he has acknowledged that the country is vulnerable if crude prices fall.
* The father of three, who has a Belgian wife, comes across as a feisty leader who never shies away from a fight and appears to relish his bouts with international bondholders, oil companies, local bankers, the Catholic Church and private media owners.
* His continuing spat with local media has made Correa the target of press freedom advocates. He says they are biased in favor of the opposition and determined to present a bleak view of his government. He has sued several journalists and newspaper owners for libel but pardoned them after winning the cases.
* Political foes denounce his style as "caudillismo," a term used in Latin America for governments led by strongmen who stamp out opposition. Though Ecuador's opposition is divided, it has been holding a slim majority in Congress, which let it block or delay legislation. Correa's Alianza Pais party was expected to win a majority in the legislature on Sunday, opinion polls say.
* Correa's relationship with Washington has been stormy. He expelled the U.S. ambassador in 2011 after U.S. cables published by WikiLeaks alleged that his government turned a blind eye to police corruption. In 2007, he refused to extend a lease letting the U.S. military use the Manta air base 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 WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange last year, he said they were both victims of persecution. He granted Assange political asylum, saying he feared Washington might try to have Assange extradited to face charges in the United States. The former computer hacker has been holed up in Ecuador's embassy in London since June.
* Correa has had a tumultuous relationship with foreign 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 about 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 has 15 million people and takes its name from the equator it straddles. A little larger in area than Britain, it is the smallest OPEC nation in terms of oil output and a leading banana exporter. It also is a major exporter of coffee, shrimp and cocoa. (Reporting by Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran Murray, Lisa Shumaker and Bill Trott)