The airport security guard's wand squealed when it passed over the pocket of presidential candidate Antanas Mockus's trousers as he prepared to embark on a recent campaign trip.
Puzzled, Mr. Mockus reached in and pulled out a No. 2 pencil with a metallic band around the eraser.
"They discovered my weapon," he says, recalling the incident with an impish smile. The pencil is one of the symbols of his campaign, which emphasizes education as a tool to transform society.
A few months ago, no one thought Mockus – a mathematician, philosopher, and former mayor of Colombia's capital, Bogotá – had much of a chance in the elections, but his unorthodox campaign style has turned Colombia's race for the presidency on its head.
Rising from a distant 3 percent in opinion polls in March, Mockus has surged over 30 percent, placing him in a dead heat with former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, considered the heir to the legacy of the famously popular president, Álvaro Uribe.
The latest Ipsos-Napoleon Franco poll gives Mr. Santos 34 percent of the vote in the first round, compared with 32 percent for Mockus. But if neither candidate secures the 50 percent of the vote needed to win outright in the first round, Mockus would win a run-off with 45 percent to Santos’ 40 percent on June 20, according to the May 23 poll.
'Super Citizen' antics
Mockus's political career has been marked by his steadfast refusal to participate in traditional party politics. As mayor of Bogotá, he made a name for himself with his wacky antics, such as dressing up in spandex tights as "Super Citizen." But he is also recognized for his uncompromising honesty and zero tolerance for corruption.
It is that quality that appears to have captured the imagination of a nation that has tired of corruption, vote buying, and an "anything goes" attitude.
"Mockus represents a new way of doing politics," says analyst Ricardo Garcia, "and he has managed to act as a catalyst for the desire of voters to do away with the political favors and short cuts" that have historically plagued politics in Colombia.
That has allowed him to win over followers from both the pro-Uribe camp and the opposition. "Some Uribistas see him as a good follow-up to Uribe, and the opposition sees him as a much-needed change," Mr. Garcia says.
Francisco Sanchez, a business consultant, says that he sees many similarities in the proposals from Mr. Santos and Mockus; the difference is the way that the two men do politics.
"The big thing at stake here is a change in the political culture," says Mr. Sanchez, who plans to vote for Mockus. "We have a chance to radically change the paradigm that politics has been built on, which is political favors and patronage."
Primary appeal is 'decency'
"Colombians see in me someone who's good," he says, adding that he represents, above anything else, the desire for "decency."
Mockus, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, can shift quickly from a distant philosophical air to a playful, eccentric demeanor. At rallies his often lofty platitudes are lost on some followers.
But his wingmen, Luis Eduardo Garzón and Enrique Peñalosa (also both former Bogotá mayors who are essential to his team), and his running mate, Sergio Fajardo (a former mayor of Colombia's second-largest city, Medellín), have the magnetism to rouse the crowds with thundering speeches.
And his followers have been inspired to take the initiative in his campaign.
"Mockusians" design and print campaign posters on their own computers. Young voters organize flash mobs where they freeze in a certain position in any public area until enough passers-by express interest, then reveal their green Mockus T-shirts and chant his slogans.
Still, for many people in the countryside, where rebels and militias roam free, security is a top issue and many people there know little about Mockus, Facebook, or philosophy. Opponent Santos is expected to carry many of the rural areas in the election.
"We could still see a lot of surprises May 30," says Jaime Duarte, a political analyst at Bogotá's Universidad Externado.