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Bolivia's Morales woos voters with cash, charisma
* Morales' Indian roots help his popularity
* Leftist leader cheered like a celebrity in rural areas
* Non-Indians in eastern regions feel let down by Morales
By Eduardo Garcia
TINGUIPAYA, Bolivia, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Cash handouts for poor families, passionate speeches against foreign companies and heavy social spending are all helping leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales in his strong campaign for re-election.
But his most ardent supporters, who have built up a cult of personality around Morales, say their identification with his poor Indian roots is the real key to his popularity.
Morales, an Aymara Indian who herded llamas as a child, lost four siblings to poverty and never finished high school, became Bolivia's first Indian president in 2006, riding strong support from the country's majority indigenous population.
His personal struggle with poverty strikes a chord with many in this Andean nation of 10 million people.
"Evo is going to win again because he has a lot of support, people that love him everywhere because he's an Indian. He's one of us," said Claudio Checa, a farmer from Tinguipaya, a remote Quechua village of adobe houses and mud roads, where Morales made a campaign stop over the weekend.
Morales will take more than half the vote in the election on Dec. 6, according to a recent poll, while his closest rival, Manfred Reyes, a former governor of the central Cochabamba region with a middle-class upbringing, trails far behind with about 20 percent. [ID:nN29236562]
"People identify with Morales and they support him because he's like them, whether he governs well or not," said political scientist Franklin Pareja.
Checa, 38, said cash subsidies, and hospitals and schools that Morales has built have made him popular, but the fact that he made it to Tinguipaya at all is almost as important.
"Other presidents never came here. They did not even notice we existed," he said.
Morales is spending some $320 million a year in grants to encourage parents to keep children in school, pensions and cash incentives to persuade pregnant women and mothers to go through regular health checks and reduce the country's high infant mortality and cervical cancer rates.
State coffers are flush with cash because of high prices from 2006 to 2008 for Bolivian natural gas and mining exports, but also because Morales nationalized the energy industry and has forced foreign companies to pay more taxes.
Morales' policies to give the state greater control over the energy and mining sectors are very popular among the rural poor, who blame foreign investors for "ransacking" Bolivia's natural resources and taking the profits abroad.
In addition, Morales' main ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has given Bolivia over $200 million, which Morales has spent in hundreds of small social projects, prompting critics to accuse him of using foreign aid to buy support.
Morales has been visiting tiny villages like Tinguipaya since he took office, reinforcing the message that he is an ordinary Bolivian in touch with the poor.
"I feel that you haven't let me down. I won't let you down either ... These kind of meetings make me cry," Morales said in Tinguipaya after dancing and drinking with the locals.
Analysts say Morales' use of simple language helps him to connect with millions of Bolivians who have had little schooling or for whom Spanish is a second language.
"If tomorrow Morales changes the way he expresses himself and his vocabulary improves ... he'll stop being Evo Morales and his popularity will drop," said Pareja, a political professor at the state-run San Andres University in La Paz.
When Morales landed in Tinguipaya in a helicopter, his security was overpowered by a mob of supporters that wanted to touch him, cheering the 50-year-old bachelor more like a pop star than a president.
"We wanted to give him a hug and a kiss, but we couldn't. I had only seen him on TV, but he is much better in real life ... Definitely worth it," said Olga Benito, 24, who traveled for three hours to see her idol for the first time.
Even though he is widely popular in rural areas, the mixed-race minority that populates the eastern part of Bolivia has long complained that Morales governs for his Indian power base in the Andean west, not for the country as a whole.
He is also frowned upon by the urban middle classes that say he is a lackey of Chavez and Cuban revolution leader Fidel Castro, and fear he may try to install one-party rule.
Critics say that if Morales' party wins a majority in Congress in the December vote, he will have too much power.
Morales won over 60 percent support in a recall vote last year and in a referendum in January over a new constitution that gave more rights to Indians and allowed him to run for a second term.
"People do not vote for a platform, they vote for a candidate. They listen to the promises, but end up voting for the candidate they fall in love with," said Pareja. (Editing by Kieran Murray)
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