By Marcus George
DUBAI (Reuters) - If you asked anyone in Tehran whether there was anyone running in Friday's presidential election able to make Iran a better place to live after years of crisis, they would probably cite their dynamic modernizing mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.
But Qalibaf's chances will hinge on whether his blend of conservatism and pragmatism can garner the trust of a clerical elite wary of independent innovators, and whether he appeals to a more traditionalist electorate beyond the capital.
His security pedigree - as a Revolutionary Guards air force commander, an Iraq war veteran and a national police chief - endeared him to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wants a loyalist successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a brazen populist who was barred by law from a third consecutive term.
Since replacing Ahmadinejad as mayor in 2005, Qalibaf has acquired widespread popularity in Tehran by tackling some of the capital's acute infrastructural problems with a mix of ingenuity, determination and astute investment.
He has driven a new trend towards employing technocrats to improve urban management.
Qalibaf has built new residential neighborhoods to help meet the demands of a soaring population, more through-roads, bridges and tunnels to improve transport in a capital notorious for chaotic and chronically snarled traffic.
"He has brought many businesses to Tehran, has started and finished many public projects in low-income areas of the city, particularly on the south side," said Ali Dadpay, an Iranian-born economics professor at Clayton State University in Georgia.
To many Iranians, Qalibaf, 51, comes across as a man of action, a war veteran with a commercial pilot's license, previously known for sporting a trademark brown leather jacket, and espousing a no-nonsense, get-the-job-done mentality.
Some analysts note he is the only presidential candidate in a field of mainly hardline Khamenei acolytes who has demonstrated accountability to the public and believe he could make an able, enterprising president.
"Qalibaf's performance as the mayor of Tehran has been strong. He talks about the necessity of improving and upgrading the management philosophy of the country with the new economic realities," said Dadpay.
Significantly, he has benefited from the strong support of Khamenei's son Mojtaba who is "said to help Qalibaf as an advisor, financier and provider of senior-level political support", according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2008.
There is no clear favorite in the election. But given what analysts say is Khamenei's determination to see a loyal, compliant president, either Qalibaf or one of the two other main conservative candidates is likely to come out top in the first round on Friday, or in a second round run-off a week later.
His popularity extends to Tehran's relatively liberal middle class who see a leader too preoccupied with urban renewal to worry about imposing strict Islamic codes on the population.
"Qalibaf is a conservative but a pragmatic conservative and socially reasonably liberal. For a lot of young people socially liberal means more to them than politically liberal," said U.S.-based author and Iran analyst Hooman Majd.
Others, however, accuse Qalibaf of being responsible for state violence against protesting students during incidents in 1999 and 2003, an image more in keeping with his background in the country's repressive security apparatus.
In a recent audio recording whose authenticity cannot be verified, Qalibaf appeared to be talking up his conservative credentials by boasting that he personally beat protesters in the 1999 demonstrations.
At the time, he was one of a group of officers who wrote to reformist President Mohammad Khatami, effectively threatening a coup unless the liberal cleric took firm control of protests.
Still, Qalibaf may be too much a popular modernizer to suit Khamenei as president, a role he could use to recalibrate Iran's relations with the world but which could upset the hardline establishment for whom Iranian sovereignty is synonymous with revolutionary defiance of the West.
Khamenei will be wary after having thrown his full support behind Ahmadinejad after his 2009 re-election, only to face repeated challenges from the president to what the Islamic Republic's constitution recognizes as his God-given authority.
"Qalibaf and Ahmadinejad belong to the same generation of Iranian politicians. Qalibaf is Ahmadinejad plus competence," said Ali Vaez, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Qalibaf became part of a "Principlist" coalition of three presidential candidates who champion the founding guidelines of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and are seen as close to Khamenei.
But in a sign of the rivalries within the Principlist camp, only one of the three has so far made good on a pledge to drop out to unite conservatives around a single candidate.
Former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, now Khamenei's foreign relations adviser, remains in the race.
"If Qalibaf becomes president, he'll have a lot of real power and support from the Revolutionary Guards and Khamenei could be under threat," said Mohsen Sazegara, an exiled dissident activist who helped found the Guards in 1979.
OFFENDING THE CLERGY
Qalibaf's first run for the presidency in 2005 collapsed after he upset the Islamic establishment when pictures circulated showing him wearing a slick Western-style white suit. He then described himself as an Islamic version of Reza Shah, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty that was overthrown in 1979.
Eight years on, Qalibaf has dispensed with politically risky imagery, focusing his campaign on fixing an Iranian economy broken by mismanagement, corruption and harsh international sanctions imposed over Iran's disputed nuclear program.
On foreign policy, Qalibaf suggested in 2008 that the Islamic Republic could reach an accommodation with arch-foe the United States if it were fully recognized by Washington and said Iran wanted to assure the world it was not after nuclear arms.
But in the run-up to the election, and with nuclear and foreign policy ultimately controlled by Khamenei, Qalibaf has avoided any topic in the minefield of Iran's foreign relations.
In the end, the question is whether Khamenei trusts Qalibaf to remain loyal if he becomes president but also whether his appeal can reach beyond the capital he runs to the more conservative, religious provinces of the nation of 75 million.
"Qalibaf's remarkable management record as the mayor will boost his electoral chances in the capital," said Vaez. "But in the absence of reliable polling data, it is difficult to know whether his popularity extends to the rest of the country."
(Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai and Zahra Hosseinian in Zurich; Editing by Mark Heinrich)