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Colombian leader has strong grip - and yen for yoga

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Uribe's approval ratings continue to hover around the 63 percent mark - among the highest of any Latin American president. In Congress, a serious movement is under way to alter Colombia's constitution so that Uribe can seek a second four-year term.

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And while other South American leaders struggle against powerful internal opposition, Colombia's president has earned praise from his rivals.

Daniel Garcia Peña, the leader of a reformist peace group and member of the political opposition, says Uribe has followed through on his campaign promises.

"Uribe really believes in what he's doing," says Mr. Peña, who worked with the President when he was governor of the Antioquia region.

"He doesn't look at the polls to see whether he should smile or frown today. He is a believer. In a country like ours, he has become a savior."

The government's plan to regain state territory lost for decades to illegal armed forces is moving forward. Of 178 municipalities that never before had police forces, 79 now do. Officers are expected to reach the others by September.

Uribe has enlisted 15,000 "peasant soldiers" to protect their rural hometowns in areas where no Army unit is permanently stationed.

And, two new High Mountain Battalions have been formed to attack the FARC in the mountains where they live.

Just last month, the government's peace minister announced a formal agreement to demobilize the paramilitary forces by the end of 2005.

Meanwhile, in the international arena, the Colombian president has crowned himself the United States's staunchest ally in Latin America. Only he and embattledBolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada supported the war in Iraq.

Uribe has secured international condemnation of the FARC, and allowed the US to fumigate coca crops, which UN figures indicate have declined by 30 percent in 2002.

Among the Colombian people, Uribe is known for an unrelenting work ethic, sparse sleep habits, and his practice of "yoganidra" - a profound meditation.

For 39 years, Hector Vega and his father, José Ramon, have owned the oldest yoga school here in the capital. But they have struggled to convince the predominantly Catholic residents that yoga isn't blasphemous.

Most thought "yoga was of the devil," says Mr. Vega.

In just one year, however, the president has managed to make his personal penchant for the Far Eastern practice a national fad.

"People come to yoga schools more than before," Vega says. Enrollment at their school is up 30 percent since Uribe took office.

"I don't agree with [his politics]," quips Vega. "But I am very thankful to Uribe because he has increased my business."

Whether Uribe's landmark political referendum can sweep the nation as his exercise habits have will soon be put to the test.

The 15-point economic and fiscal reform program on which he campaigned will hit the ballot box Oct. 25. It needs six million votes, or 25 percent of the electorate, to be approved.

The Constitutional Court struck down the referendum's most controversial provisions - such as harsher punishment for drug users. Now, it is a bland hodgepodge that includes items like making congressional votes public.

Polls show that only 40 percent of Colombians plan to vote. But observers believe that with Uribe as campaigner-in-chief, the referendum can't miss.