CHELM, Poland -- Hundreds of Poles throng a flag-bedecked stage, many in tears as they applaud the speaker and thrust pictures at him for autographs. It is a scene Westerners might associate with Solidarity founder Lech Walesa or Polish-born Pope John Paul II.
But the center of attraction is Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former Communist Party sports minister, now coasting comfortably to a second term as president.
Ten years after the demise of the Communist regime he once served, Kwasniewski, 46, is now Poland's best-loved politician and the overwhelming favorite in tomorrowelection.
He regularly tops 60 percent in voter opinion polls, while none of his dozen challengers has managed much over 10. Walesa, the national hero whom Kwasniewski unseated in 1995, can barely muster 3 percent, but is running anyway.
Kwasniewski took a 10-point dive in at least one poll this week after an opponent's ad showed video of him appearing to mock the hugely revered pope. Some pollsters believe it might cost enough votes to deny him the 50 percent needed to win outright and force a runoff ballot. But few doubt he would win it.
At the rally in Chelm, a city in Poland's poor southeastern farming region, he promised more jobs, less poverty, fewer crimes and better education.
The post is largely ceremonial, but carries considerable moral authority in this country of 39 million people. The president also can veto legislation, and Kwasniewski has at times done so, to the fury of the center-right government.
He blocked tax reforms he deemed unfair to workers, and a Roman Catholic Church-inspired pornography ban he said was oppressive and unenforceable.
While he has endorsed painful market reforms, he also has managed to cast himself as the champion of millions who believe they have suffered in the tumultuous shift from communism to capitalism. …