JAGHORI, Afghanistan | Swaying from the sunroof of a dirt-streaked 4×4, Abdullah Abdullah could only grin.
In his first visit to this poor, ethnic-Hazara enclave in east-central Afghanistan, the Tajik-Pashtun candidate for president was received by more than 1,000 people who jostled to get a clear look at him, snatched pictures with cell phone cameras and killed a cow in his honor.
Of the 40 candidates challenging President Hamid Karzai’s bid for a second term in the Aug. 20 elections, Mr. Abdullah is the only one within reach of forcing a runoff, according to a recent poll funded by the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI).
“Ethnicity doesn’t matter; I have mobilized the people. What a beautiful day it is,” Mr. Abdullah told The Washington Times as he and his entourage careened down a dirt track toward a Russian-built MI-17 helicopter that would take him to his next campaign stop in neighboring Daykundi province.
With less than a week to go until elections are held for president and parliament, the one-time ophthalmologist and former foreign minister is ramping up his bid to challenge Mr. Karzai with a populist message that seeks to bridge the country’s ethnic fault lines. Mr. Karzai is a Pashtun, as are about 40 percent of Afghanistan’s 33 million people.
The day before, Mr. Abdullah traveled to a rally in the foothills above the Shomali plains north of Kabul, where he was mobbed by throngs of mostly Tajik supporters.
On another day, he was scheduled to fly south to Kandahar, the Pashtun heartland and a Karzai stronghold. After that, he was scheduled to visit Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, with expectations of a massive turnout.
Dizzying as it may be, Mr. Abdullah is counting on the hustle to pay off.
According to the IRI-funded poll released Friday, Mr. Abdullah has 26 percent support, compared with Mr. Karzai at 44 percent. This was a dramatic increase over just 7 percent backing Mr. Abdullah as shown in a poll funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development in May. Mr. Karzai’s support has grown by 13 percent since May.
Just two weeks ago, Mr. Karzai appeared to be headed for the 50 percent-plus margin of victory needed to win re-election in one round. If Mr. Karzai falls short of the 50 percent mark on Thursday, a runoff will be held one month later.
Should this happen, Mr. Abdullah said he is convinced he can prevail, as Afghans disillusioned by charges of fraud and backroom dealings are roused to the real possibility of a change at the top.
“If it goes to a runoff, it will certainly be my job,” he said.
Given how effectively Mr. Karzai has co-opted influential warlords from the main ethnic groups over the past months, analysts say the election remains his to lose, but is not guaranteed.
Mr. Karzai’s public appearances have tended to be brief, and he has refused to participate in television debates, leaving Mr. Abdullah and the third major candidate, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, to debate each other.
Mr. Ghani has done well on television, a novelty for this impoverished nation, where television was banned until the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.
Mr. Abdullah seeks to overcome Mr. Ghani’s advantage with in-person appearances, in which he attempts to localize concerns in simple language.
In Jaghori, he talked of bringing jobs and better living conditions to an ethnic-Hazara audience that has long fallen by the wayside of government promises. One of his stock slogans: “Give me the power, so that I can return the power to you.” Unlike most Afghans, Hazaras are Shi’ite Muslims.
The speech drew a mix of blank expressions and loud cheers of “Abdullah, Abdullah.”
At the edge of the crowd, farmer Kher Muhammad was a bit wary, saying that Mr. Karzai, like most politicians, had made grand promises five years ago without delivering. Why would Mr. Abdullah be any different, he wondered.
“Doctor Abdullah is a good man, a patriot, a true mujahedeen,” interrupted Gorban Ali, a tribal elder. “He thinks about Afghanistan first, no matter if you are Hazara, Tajik or Pashtun.”
The fate of Mr. Abdullah’s campaign will depend on such convictions. Although his father was a Pashtun from Kandahar, his mother was a Tajik, and he is often identified as a Tajik because of his close relationship with the iconic guerrilla commander Ahmed Shah Masood, a Tajik with whom he served during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s.
This ethnic association is helpful in the north and far northeast of Afghanistan, but problematic in the Pashtun-dominated south and areas in the east adjacent to Pakistan’s tribal areas. Mr. Abdullah is also at a disadvantage with the Hazaras of central Afghanistan. Pashtuns and Hazaras were targeted by Mr. Masood’s forces during the Afghan civil war of the early 1990s.
Mr. Abdullah went on to become foreign minister under the Northern Alliance government, held in exile during the Taliban years. He held the post through transitional and elected Karzai administrations until he was replaced in 2006.
Today, he shares with many Afghans a deep frustration over the corruption and insecurity that have defined Mr. Karzai’s government.
“What is [Mr. Karzai’s] problem as a leader? He can’t trust. And what’s the bigger problem?” Mr. Abdullah asked rhetorically. “He can’t be trusted.”
To make his point, he contrasted his open, risky campaign style amid violent threats with Mr. Karzai’s insular approach, which features few campaign appearances.
Late last month, insurgents opened fire at an Abdullah rally; several days later, one of his campaigners was injured in a shooting in Laghman province.
The Taliban has vowed to disrupt the balloting, and election authorities estimate that about 10 percent of the polling stations nationwide will be shut on election day because of violence.
Mr. Karzai’s government has hired thousands of tribesmen to serve as temporary guards at polling stations in an attempt to bolster Afghan army and police forces, which are lacking in numbers.
He has also won points with the public by persuading the U.S. military to revise strategies to reduce civilian casualties from air strikes against insurgent targets.
Mr. Abdullah has promised to improve governance if elected, including shifting the country toward a more decentralized, parliamentary system. He also would like to change the law to directly elect governors and district governors instead of the presidential appointments.
As with many of his proposals, analysts say the details are often outstripped by the delivery. And no matter how much his words resonate, there are doubts that rural voters are prepared to vote independently of local warlords, who hold sway through tribal militias.
All the top Hazara leaders have already thrown their support behind Mr. Karzai. With up to one-fifth of the overall population, some say their vote could prove decisive.
“The big questions is: Will people in the villages have their own voice or follow their leaders?” said Haroun Mir, director of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul. “Since democracy is very new in this country, and people are still not looking so much at agendas, it’s hard to see otherwise.”
During an afternoon refueling stop after the Jaghori rally, Mr. Abdullah learned that yet another warlord, Ismail Khan, a Tajik who controls Herat and the surrounding area in western Afghanistan, had decided to back Mr. Karzai.
When Mr. Abdullah finally arrived at Behsud village in Daykundi province, his second and final event of the day, he was six hours late.
Hundreds of people had already left, though most hung around after coming overland as many as 15 miles on foot or donkey. They sat silently and stared under a waning sun as Mr. Abdullah made his appeal.
“He seems to be sincere,” said Farzana, a Hazara mother of three. “Maybe I will vote for him.”