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Leader emerges in Colombian presidential race

BOGOTA, Colombia — There’s a new front runner in the race for the Colombian presidency.

A poll released Monday night puts former Bogota mayor and Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus in first place. In a few short weeks, Mockus has gained 18 points to leapfrog past Juan Manuel Santos, a former defense minister who had been the front runner since the presidential campaign kicked off two months ago.

In the survey, commissioned by RCN television and Semana news magazine, Mockus placed first with 38 percent followed by Santos with 29 percent. Noemi Sanin, a former ambassador, placed third with 11 percent while three other candidates registered in the low single digits.

If the winner in the May 30 first-round balloting fails to garner more than 50 percent of the votes, the top two finishers will take part in a June 20 runoff. In a potential Mockus-Santos showdown, the poll shows Mockus prevailing 50 percent to 37 percent.

Mockus’s sudden rise from afterthought to big dog upends conventional wisdom that held the candidate most aligned with Uribe — who is widely admired for improving security in war-ravaged Colombia — would have the upper hand.

Santos has received Uribe’s blessing and presents himself as the hardline candidate of continuity.

But Mockus has carried out a brilliant campaign by pledging to maintain Uribe’s security policies while leading a more ethical administration following a series of government scandals. He’s also scored points by running a positive campaign and by forming an alliance with three former big-city mayors who used to be political rivals.

Even Mockus' disclosure this month that he suffers from an early form of Parkinson’s disease made no dent in his popularity. Instead, Colombians applauded Mockus for being forthright.

Given the volatility of the polls, Mockus could eventually fall to earth. But right now, he can do no wrong.