Mohamed Dahlan, the 44-year-old Gaza strongman who is standing in this month's Palestinian legislative elections, always looks cool under pressure. But he has taken up smoking again after hitting the campaign trail hard.
With a week to go, he has embarked on a punishing meet-and-greet schedule in his native district of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, where many of the 90,000 eligible voters are impoverished descendents of refugees resulting from Israel's creation in 1948.
Although his personal standing gives him a 15 per cent lead over local candidates of the militant Islamic group Hamas, Mr Dahlan is leaving nothing to chance and is busy courting the 20 or so clan chiefs who command the loyalties -- and votes -- of hundreds of family members.
Dahlan is one of the leaders of the young reformers in the once all-powerful Fatah movement that opinion polls show is barely ahead of Hamas overall in the run-up to the January 25 election for 132 seats on the Palestinian Legislative Council. Fatah is suffering from widespread disillusionment with its leader Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president.
On the surface, little seems to connect the Gaza masses with the suave and charismatic former security chief, of whom President George W. Bush once said: "I like that young man."
But as his convoy pushed through Khan Younis's narrow streets last week, hundreds of supporters turned out to cheer him on as women and children threw sweets from balconies, like a scene from a Palestinian wedding. The jeeps passed a small rally of Hamas supporters wearing Islamic green baseball caps. One of them snarled: "We're gonna teach you a lesson."
Mr Dahlan repeatedly refers to other Fatah candidates but it is clear the crowds regard him as the star.
At the end of an exhausting day campaigning last week, Mr Dahlan acknowledged to the FT that Fatah was lagging Hamas in terms of organisation and strategy. "In Khan Younis, I've tried to serve as a model for others in Fatah and I'm trying to convince the leadership that we are stronger than Hamas."
Mr Dahlan was one of the "young guard" who broke away last month to register a separate Fatah list headed by Marwan Barghouthi, a West Bank leader who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail. Aides say the move was tactical, to force Mr Abbas to take notice of the demands of a younger generation instead of the "old guard" leaders. Mr Abbas and his contemporaries spent much of their lives in exile, returning to the occupied territories with the late Yassir Arafat after the interim self-rule Oslo accords of the mid-1990s.
The tactic worked and Fatah now has a united list, although many of Mr DahIan's younger supporters wish the split had been permanent.
Many Palestinians in Gaza say they would like Mr Dahlan to use the same forcefulness, others say brutality, that he used to suppress Hamas in the late 1990s to deal with a recent wave of lawlessness following Israel's withdrawal from Gaza.
After recent talks with armed factions, such as Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Mr Dahlan says he is confident the elections and their aftermath will proceed smoothly.
He was in charge of negotiations with Israel on post-Gaza withdrawal issues, such as border crossings and opening links with the West Bank.
But he was forced to take time off late last year after a flare-up of back problems he says date back to torture sustained in an Israeli prison during the 1980s.
Many Palestinians like the fact Mr Dahlan is considered acceptable as a negotiator by Israel and US, a virtue that has proved a handicap to other leaders. He will not state his long-term ambitions, but many expect to watch his rise to the presidency before too long.
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