Election officials in Nicaragua say, with almost two-thirds of the votes counted, former President Daniel Ortega leads the presidential poll with nearly 39 percent of the vote. From Managua, VOA's Brian Wagner reports that, if Ortega maintains his advantage, the Sandinista leader would be declared winner.

Twenty seven years after seizing power in a coup, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega appeared close to regaining the presidency in the Central American nation. A victory would mark a turnaround for Ortega, who has launched several failed bids for the presidency since he was voted out of office in 1990.

A preliminary vote count showed he has a comfortable lead over the second-place candidate, Harvard-educated banker Eduardo Montealegre. A well-respected civic rights group, Ethics and Transparency, said a representative sample of ballots also confirmed an Ortega victory. Third-place candidate, Jose Rizo, of the Liberal Party, however, rejected the tallies.

Street vendor Gerson Francisco Gomez said he was not confident that partial vote counts were accurate. But he welcomed a new term for Ortega.

He said Ortega is trying to help young people get ahead, by providing education and jobs to those in need, which would allow them to live better lives.

Many in Nicaragua's poor majority say they support the former Marxist president who fought U.S.-backed Contras during the 1980s. In his campaign, Ortega suggested he has turned away from Marxist policies, and promised to inspire reconciliation and peace in the country.

Despite the rhetoric, experts say voter support for Ortega has not changed significantly compared to past elections.

According to Alejandro Serrano Caldera, a professor in Managua, the Sandinista leader surged ahead because of a split among conservative voters over two separate candidates.

He says the conservative vote in past elections has been behind one candidate, but the split this year has allowed Ortega to achieve a likely victory. Caldera adds that if Ortega wins with about 40 percent of votes, he will have difficulties claiming legitimacy as president.

Another factor that seemed to help Ortega this year has been election reforms backed by Sandinista lawmakers and their allies in the legislature in 1999. The reforms lowered the number of votes needed to declare a winner in the first round from 45 percent, to 35 percent with a five-point lead.

Caldera says that, without the backing of a majority of voters, Ortega would be forced into a coalition with opposition parties.

He says Ortega would have to make firm commitments with other parties about basic issues in order to achieve a level of democratic governance.

Some U.S. lawmakers have warned an Ortega victory would damage relations with Washington.

Managua pastor, Oscar Martes, said any break in relations between the two nations would be unfortunate.

He says it's important for the two nations to continue working together, and adds Nicaragua has been blessed to have the support of the United States in the past.