Nicaraguan leftwing Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, making his third bid to return to power, has a 17-point lead before November's presidential election and could win without a runoff, a poll showed Wednesday.
The survey gave 37.5 percent support to Ortega, a U.S. Cold War foe and ally of Venezuela's radical leftist leader Hugo Chavez. It was the first to indicate that the 61-year-old Ortega could take the presidency in the first round.
The poll was conducted by the University of Central America with local daily El Nuevo Diario, Canal 10 television and the Nicaraguan chamber of commerce.
Under Nicaraguan law, a candidate can win in one round by scoring 40 percent, or 35 percent if they have at least a 5-point lead over their nearest rival. Otherwise, the vote goes to a run-off between the top two candidates.
Ortega's closest rival in the poll was conservative former vice president and coffee farmer Jose Rizo of the ruling Liberal Party with 20.1 percent.
Eduardo Montealegre, a center-right Harvard-educated former banker and Washington's preferred candidate, ranked third with 17.3 percent. Montealegre, a fan of former U.S President Ronald Reagan, is in second place in most other polls.
A poll in mid-September by Zogby International gave Ortega 34 percent and a 15-point lead over runner-up Montealegre.
Ortega ruled Nicaragua throughout the 1980s after the 1979 Sandinista revolution toppled the Somoza family dictatorship, but was voted out in 1990 as Nicaraguans tired of his regime's punishing civil war against U.S.-funded Contra rebels.
About 30,000 people were killed in the war, which left the economy in tatters.
Washington, fearing the spread of Chavez's populist policies to another impoverished Latin American nation, has made it clear it would not welcome an Ortega victory in the Nov. 5 poll.
The former revolutionary is benefiting from a split among Nicaragua's conservatives, but some observers think they could put the backbiting behind them to beat Ortega in a second round.
Anger over daily power cuts caused in part by high world oil prices may also hurt the ruling conservatives.
Ortega has won over former foes including ex-Contra fighters to his campaign, based on a platform of reconciliation. At the same time, in past elections wavering voters have tended to turn against Ortega on election day.
Wednesday's poll was conducted among 15,330 people and had a margin of error of 0.8 percentage points.