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By Alexandra Ulmer and Alexandra Valencia
QUITO (Reuters) - An aide wheels out Ecuador's presidential candidate Lenin Moreno, who lost the use of his legs two decades ago, to a stage in a working-class area of the mountainous capital Quito.
Behind him, a woman rapidly translates into sign language his promises of benefits for single mothers and retirees. Rows of wheelchair-bound supporters around the podium cheer on the leftist politician.
Moreno, 63, became paraplegic after being shot in the back during a robbery in 1998. He has put disability at the center of his campaign to be elected president of the poor Andean country on Sunday.
The former vice president and United Nations envoy on disability has vowed to further boost jobs and social benefits for disabled Ecuadoreans.
If he wins, he would be a rare wheelchair-bound head of state and one of the highest-profile disabled leaders since former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, who had to use a wheelchair because of polio and died in 1945.
During Moreno's 2007-2013 tenure as vice president, he helped build a database of disabled people so that they could receive medical treatment tailored to their needs, provided a monthly stipend of $240 for families who take care of a disabled relative, and created a loan program for disabled entrepreneurs in the country of 16 million.
For Ecuador's estimated 400,000 people with physical, mental, auditive, or visual disabilities, Moreno is nothing short of a hero.
"He opened the door for us and he keeps opening doors for us," said Gina Ruiz, a 52-year-old supporter who attended Moreno's closing rally in southern Quito on Wednesday night.
Ruiz was forced to retire from her job as a teacher because polio eventually left her unable to walk. But thanks to a loan for disabled people, she opened a taxi company that now employs 20 people.
"Now the rest of my compatriots will have these opportunities too," said Ruiz, beaming from her wheelchair as music and fireworks filled the air and Moreno was whisked away into a car after his speech.
Born in the Ecuadorean Amazon to left-wing teachers, Moreno had a long and difficult recovery process after thieves attacked him while he was out with his wife buying bread. He then choose to "continue living," according to an official biography, and went on to write a half-dozen motivational books, including one called "Laugh, Don't be Ill."
"(I extend) this dark hand, tanned by the sun, a little calloused because of these wheels, but sincere and honest," Moreno told a crowd of supporters on Thursday.
Moreno's opponents avoid criticizing his popular pro-disability projects or voicing potential concerns about his health.
But the main opposition candidate, conservative banker Guillermo Lasso, warns Moreno's promises are untenable in the midst of a recession, low oil prices and high debt. Opponents also criticized the government for paying Moreno's expenses during his time at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.
"Mr. Moreno is a man with no leadership, no personal initiative, no knowledge of the economy, who pretends to fool Ecuadoreans with his soft voice," Lasso said in an interview in his hot and humid coastal hometown of Guayaquil this week. [L1N1G204Q]
Polls suggest Moreno will edge out Lasso in Sunday's vote, but he may not pocket enough votes to avoid an April runoff.
Much of the middle class in this country that exports oil, shrimp, bananas and flowers feel their own opportunities have shrunk during a decade-long leftist rule that has put emphasis on the poor.
"Disabled people have rights, but they're not the only ones," said physiotherapist Christopher Aulestia, 25, who attended a rally to support Lasso in Guayaquil on Thursday.
"The middle class has been affected by so many taxes, it's difficult for us to contribute the way we used to," he said, adding that he also doubted Moreno would follow through on his promises.
In the meantime, Moreno can bank on a 2013 policy that allows nearly 900 disabled and elderly people to vote from home.
"This is wonderful. It's mutual help, I'm very happy," said 85-year-old Laura Vasquez, who cannot walk and had not voted in seven years, speaking from her bed below a painting of Jesus Christ after casting her vote on Friday.
(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Girish Gupta and Matthew Lewis)