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MONROVIA, Oct 8 (AFP) - Walking into the palaver hut at her compound in Monrovia to greet backers of her bid to become president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf notices a vase of flowers turned slightly brown and wilted.
"Surely we can do better than this," says the 66-year-old Harvard educated veteran of Liberian politics and surely the woman most likely to make history as Africa's first female president.
It's a refrain that echoes throughout her campaign at the head of the Unity Party as one of 22 contenders for the presidency of the war-torn west African country, hoping to restore Liberia's place as a prosperous leader on the continent where it was first to gain independence.
"Liberians want peace and sanity, and the ability to get on with their lives," she told AFP one early morning this week, heading into the home stretch of a campaign she has confidence will not be a repeat of the 1997 election when she took second behind Charles Taylor.
"There are thousands of unemployed, uneducated idle youth in vulnerable situations; there is a festering disease of corruption in our government; there is a dangerous problem with our lack of water and electricity and basic hygiene services. Our people deserve better than this."
Stints at Citibank and the World Bank kept Johnson Sirleaf away from Liberia after earning her master's degree at Harvard until 1972, when she returned to join the government of William Tolbert, and later the government of William Tubman.
She also did some time in jail, twice accused of treason for giving speeches criticizing president Samuel Doe.
But it was her support, initially, for Charles Taylor that has come back to haunt her during this campaign, particularly a well-reported statement from the early days of his 1989 uprising against Doe that he should "burn Monrovia... burn it all, and we will rebuild it."
She has since publicly apologized, but her opponents, who are numerous, have sought to discredit her and question her loyalties as she surges forward to be one of the front running candidates in Tuesday's polls.
"I supported Taylor because I thought we had the same goals; that is, that we wanted an end to the corrupt mismanagement and militaristic leadership under Doe," she said.
"But we ultimately did not share the same goals, because he was more concerned with personal gain than in the national interest. And I was one of the first to criticize him then, and I will continue to criticize anyone who puts themselves above our country."
Though far from eliciting the rabid support of her nearest rival, football giant George Weah, Johnson Sirleaf pulls impressive crowds, drawing her strength from the 51 percent of the 1.3 million registered voters who are women.
At her wrap-up rally on Thursday, they were dancing and chanting as the float carrying her wound its way slowly to the Antoinette Tubman stadium where she reiterated her promises of education, employment and electricity in front of a well-mannered and devoted audience.
"There has been Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and Corazon Aquino," said Tilly Sumba, an artist and student at the Progressive Adventist High School, ticking off women who have achieved high office in other parts of the world.
"Now it's Ellen's turn. Now it's our turn."
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