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Candidates vie to lead the rebuilding of Haiti

There are few early favorites in Haiti's presidential race.

Haiti earthquake rubble
Customers are reflected in mirrors as they walk past merchants that have set up their shops in front of buildings that collapsed during the earthquake, Aug. 16, 2010, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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MIAMI — The presidential dreams of a rapper-turned-political-hopeful ended bitterly. But Wyclef Jean's brief campaign brought needed energy to one of the most important elections in Haiti’s history.

Jean was ruled ineligible to run because he hadn’t lived in the country for the five years before the election as constitutionally required.

Yet, for the few weeks he was a viable candidate, Jean “energized the youth, including the young people living in the slums in and around Port-au-Prince,” said Jean-German Gros, a Haiti native and political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Sixty percent of residents are under the age of 24 and Jean’s rock star persona and international fame instantly made him their candidate. Now that he’s gone, the question is who can capitalize on his momentum.

“He was very attractive to the youth. I think he transferred the energy he uses on the stage to the electoral process, which has quite a bit of appeal,” said Bernice Robertson, senior analyst for Haiti at the International Crisis Group, by telephone from Port-au-Prince. “He helped provoke interest in the process. We have to see if there are other candidates that can continue it.”

Jean told his Twitter followers Tuesday that “he will not support any candidates at this times, but country, facts & the truth.” The message was included in a speech in Creole posted on his political party’s website.

Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, a well-known Creole musician considered less of an outsider than Jean — who left Haiti for Brooklyn at age 9 — is an obvious choice to pick up where Jean left off. But he’s a neophyte sharing space with career politicians on a list of 19 candidates.

Although the January earthquake destroyed parts of an already weak government, Haitians should be able to go to polls on Nov. 28 — thanks, in part, to the international community funding most of the $29 million election.

Campaign season begins in earnest the last week in September. And observers are hard pressed to pick an early favorite. If front runners exist, among them are Jude Celestin, who oversaw the government’s work to haul rubble after the Jan. 12 earthquake destroyed the capital. Celestin has the backing of current President Rene Preval and, therefore, inherited the “political infrastructure that gives him a campaign advantage,” Gros said.

Preval chose Celestin over two-time Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis. Alexis served as prime minster from 1998 to 2001 and again from 2006 to 2008. Alexis is running with a different party.

Other candidates with name recognition include former first lady Mirlande Hyppolite Manigat, the current Minister of Social Affair Yves Cristalin and Leslie Voltaire — a former minister and U.S.-educated urban planner.

The backing of an established party will be important in getting out the message. Analysts told The Miami Herald that a candidate will need between $10 million and $20 million to mount a serious challenge. That’s considerably more than in 2005 when analysts estimated $3 million to $6 million was needed. The job pays $72,000 a year.

The new chief will take over a decimated country: The quake killed at least 250,000 and left millions homeless or living in temporary shelters, a situation that continues. Port-au-Prince, the government and commercial center, is largely destroyed and the government, barely functioning before January, is running largely thanks to international assistance.