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After the bombing, Bhutto faces challenge to attract crowds on the campaign trail

    MIRPURKHAS, Pakistan — Bringing her election campaign to her home province, Benazir Bhutto vowed that neither bullets nor bombs could keep her away from the Pakistani people.
    And she sounded confident of victory in the Jan. 8 parliamentary elections, telling The Associated Press her party was poised to win as long as the vote is free and fair.
    ‘‘Bhutto is alive! Bhutto is alive! Bhutto is alive!’’ she shouted at a rally this week, invoking the memory of her late father who founded the populist Pakistan People’s Party by echoing his promises of bread, clothes and shelter for all.
    Several thousand flag-waving party faithful lapped up the rhetoric and cheered back, their weathered faces squinting against the late afternoon sun.
    ‘‘She will take care of the poor,’’ said farmer Talib Hussain, his hair dusty from the 55-mile drive from his village. ‘‘Inflation has made our lives miserable.’’
    Yet the rear half of the municipal sports field in the southern city of Mirpurkas, a stronghold district for Bhutto’s party, was mostly empty for the rally Tuesday — a sign that security fears, public apathy and memories of her ineffectual two terms in office in the late 1980s and early 1990s have taken some of the steam out of Bhutto’s long-awaited homecoming.
    Bhutto, back from eight years of self-exile, is hoping that a victory in parliamentary elections can bring her a third term as prime minister. She is undeterred by the suicide attack that hit her arrival parade in Karachi in October, killing about 150 people.
    Traveling by bulletproof white SUV under police escort, she addressed a series of tightly guarded public meetings across the southern province of Sindh this week, styling herself as a champion of democracy who is challenging the authoritarian rule of President Pervez Musharraf.
    ‘‘It feels great to be back home,’’ she told the AP Wednesday, brushing off suggestions the turnouts have been far lower than she drew in the past. ‘‘There’s a lot of excitement. We have great momentum going, a great tempo going.’’
    ‘‘Some people may be afraid to come but I can tell you, this is my sixth election campaign and the crowds are very big,’’ she said. ‘‘If the elections are free and fair, we are poised to win.’’
    Bhutto’s party is likely to fare well in Sindh. But it faces stiffer competition in the key province of Punjab, which accounts for half the parliamentary seats and is a stronghold of both the ruling party and Nawaz Sharif, another opposition leader recently returned from exile.
    While Bhutto has agreed to cooperate with Sharif in a handful of constituencies to shut out the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q party, she appears willing to team up with virtually any of her rivals if that is what it takes to get back into power.
    Bhutto accuses the PML-Q of attempting to rig the elections and of even plotting a ‘‘blood bath’’ on polling day to stave off defeat. Yet she does not rule out an alliance with them after the results are in.
    ‘‘We have to wait to see the numbers,’’ she said.
    That pragmatism could dull the impact of her idealistic rhetoric — as could her ambivalence toward Musharraf, with whom she negotiated an amnesty that allowed her return despite allegations of corruption.
    It has been more than 20 years since Bhutto first shot to prominence, campaigning against the dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul-Haq whose regime executed her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1979. She now faces a public more cynical about what its politicians can do for the electorate.
    Pakistan has lurched between military rule and weak civilian administrations for much of its 60-year history. In the latest episode, Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terror, suspended the constitution for six weeks in a maneuver to cling to the presidency. He claimed the nation was under threat from Supreme Court judges who could have stripped him of power.
    ‘‘Considering the past, it does not seem any of the politicians are going to make any changes in the country,’’ said Anwar Mashih, 27, as he had a shave in a Mirpurkhas barber shop. ‘‘I passed by Bhutto’s rally today, but I remembered the Karachi bomb and decided not to stay.’’
    Yet at least in this part of Sindh, even supporters of the rival Mutahida Qaumi Movement party which controls one of the three parliamentary seats in Mirpurkhas, are respectful of Bhutto and typically described her as a ‘‘good leader.’’
    Some, however, criticize the contradiction between her populist rhetoric and reliance on feudal landlords and relatives of party stalwarts to garner votes.
    Two People’s Party lawmakers in the district are leading landowners. In nearby Hyderabad, the main candidate is the younger brother of Makhdoom Amin Fahim, a top Bhutto aide. In Nawab Shah to the north, a younger sister of Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari — once dubbed ‘‘Mr. 10 Percent’’ because of his alleged demands for kickbacks during Bhutto’s time in power — seems assured of election.
    One party member who owns a 100-acre farm near Mirpurkhas was sanguine about what he gets for his political loyalties. He said he forks out about $250 as part of a six-member committee assigned to fund the party’s presence at four polling stations.
    If Bhutto is voted in, it becomes easier to get a loan at the agricultural bank without paying a bribe, said the farmer, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. He would also be able to force the transfer of an irrigation official who refuses to supply water and would feel more protected against shakedowns by corrupt police.
    In her campaign speeches, Bhutto promised generous state subsidies for crop prices and lashed out at the ruling party for bringing only ‘‘terrorism, unemployment and inflation’’ to Pakistan.
    She scarcely mentioned fighting Islamic extremism — a key plank of her ideology that makes her popular with Western nations.
    ‘‘Poverty is more important an issue for us than extremism,’’ said Abdul Aziz, 26, a medical student.
    ————
    Associated Press writer Ashraf Khan contributed to this report.

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