At least 200,000 people wearing Sandinista red and black gathered Wednesday for the largest political rally in the country's history, capping an election campaign in which Nicaraguans have been bombarded with songs, ads, T-shirts and banners in advance of Sunday's elections. President Daniel Ortega, running for re-election on the Sandinista ticket, greeted the crowd at a park near Lake Managua by shouting, "The people know which is its future!" Referring to the U.S. government's support of the opposition, he added, "The Yankees don't have enough millions to buy the conscience of the people!"
Despite angry exchanges last week between the Sandinstas and the United National Opposition (UNO), Ortega said, "I won't give them an eye for an eye nor a tooth for a tooth. There's no reason for that because they are already noqueados" _ knocked out.
He caught his audience by surprise by asking: "Is the economic situation of the country bad?"
"No!' the crowd roared, thinking it was the right answer. He asked again. "No!"
"Of course it is," Ortega corrected them. "But will the people betray the revolution for that?"
During the six-month campaign, and especially as the opposition has gained in the closing days, the Sandinistas have mobilized themselves on a mind-bog
gling scale. About 80,000 people are working on the Sandinista campaign, said Bayardo Arce, the comandante in charge of it.
To the opposition's chagrin, the Sandinistas have also mobilized the resources of the state _ television, radio, vehicles, gasoline. Thousands of government vehicles have been enlisted to haul people to rallies, especially the final one Wednesday.
From the northern city of Esteli alone came at least 65 trucks, buses, jeeps, an ambulance, and even dump trucks from the state mining concern _ all packed with people. Stretches of the roads leading to Managua turned into giant parking lots. Alongside the trucks, thousands of people in Sandinista T-shirts and caps walked toward the park known to the Sandinistas as Plaza of the Revolution and to the opposition as Plaza of the Republic. UNO held its final rally there Sunday and drew an estimated 50,000 people.
"The electoral campaign in Nicaragua has been unfair," UNO strategist Alfredo Cesar said Wednesday. "The disadvantage of the opposition against the government has been incredibly large."
Arce said the Sandinistas spent $6.4-million on the campaign, and another campaign official put the figure at $10-million. Cesar estimated $15-million for the Sandinistas compared to about $3-million for the opposition.
The Sandinistas and many election observers counter that incumbents in any country, and especially in Latin America, usually have an election advantage.
For the Sandinistas, Sunday's balloting is not just an election _ it will mean the end or the survival of a political project to which many of them are deeply attached. They joke about suicide or insurrection if the opposition wins. The opposition retorts that leading Sandinistas are too fond of their perks and privileges.
For whichever reason, the ruling party has hardly missed a trick in the campaign. "Daniel Ortega's campaign has not made any mistakes," said UNO's television news director Carlos Briceno. "It would be a great campaign anywhere in the world. They're showed the world that in a short time they can change completely, like chameleons, if they believe it's necessary.
"Sure they've had a lot of resources, misusing government resources. But just having money and resources doesn't necessarily buy a good campaign."
Even the shape of the platform from which Ortega spoke to crowds was adjusted to respond to the polls the Sandinistas have been conducting daily.
"We asked people "What do you want in a president?' " said Dionisio Marenco, head of communications for the campaign. ""They said, "Connected to the people.' "
So Ortega's stage was built into a T-shape, like a fashion show runway, to literally project the president out into the crowd at hundreds of rallies in every sizeable city in Nicaragua.
Ortega carried a portable microphone and prowled the stage like a talk-show host. "This is Bernarda," he said, putting an arm around a young Sandinista local candidate at a rally last week in Boaco, about 60 miles northeast of Managua. "Who's going to vote for Bernarda?"
The crowd approved of Bernarda.
At the end of that rally, Ortega indulged in the campaign technique he seems to enjoy most _ autographing baseballs and pitching them into what he calls "center feel."
To project a softer image, Ortega has abandoned his comandante's green fatigues for T-shirts and jeans, and his glasses for contact lenses. He dances, he jokes, he rides into town on horseback.
In another technique, Ortega and Vice President Sergio Ramirez have been posing for Polaroid pictures with thousands of babies and children.
In a poor country like Nicaragua, photographs are a rare and cherished treasure.
But despite the fact that thousands of people have had their picture taken or are wearing Sandinista campaign T-shirts, the gifts may not secure votes. UNO leaders assert that even some Sandinista state workers and soldiers will vote for the opposition but won't say so to pollsters.
Meanwhile, Nicaraguans have been quietly enjoying the fruits of electoral battle. A baseball game involving Managua's most popular team, the Boer, was moved from Esteli to the Managua stadium, near the site of the UNO rally. Tickets were free.
"It's okay," said an UNO supporter who is also a fervent baseball fan. "People went to the rally and listened to the game on the radio."