Ex-hostage seems to be on threshold of political revival

Could Ingrid Betancourt become Colombia's next president?

It was one of the first questions she was asked after being freed in a daring helicopter rescue from six years in rebel captivity.

Betancourt was running for president when she was kidnapped in 2002, and recent polls show she's Colombia's second-most-popular politician after her former rival, President Alvaro Uribe, who is constitutionally barred from a third term.

So far, Betancourt has publicly deflected such talk, saying “only God knows” about her political future and that she needs to consult with her children and mother before making any decisions.

“At this moment, I just want to feel like one more Colombian soldier serving the country,” she said.

But every move since her liberation – her kind words for Uribe and military leaders, her calls for a hard line against the rebels while Colombia pursues peace, the camouflage jacket and floppy hat she donned for her first, triumphant news conference – suggests she has emerged from the jungle with her political senses keenly intact, according to people who know her well.

“It's very clear what she's doing. She had six years to think about what she would say that day,” said Eduardo Chavez, an adviser from her 2002 campaign. “It's clear that her presidential campaign continues, with Uribe or without him.”

Betancourt, a product of the privileged political classes of both Colombia and France, was running against Uribe as a fringe-party, anti-establishment candidate before she was kidnapped. Since her rescue, she's been celebrated by Uribe and conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and basked Friday in the adoration of citizens of both nations.

Some Colombians who recalled the center-left politician's openness to negotiating with the rebels during her campaign against Uribe were stunned to hear her praise his 2006 re-election as “very good for Colombia.” She also praised the military buildup against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – and the soldiers returned her admiration.

It was a soldier's rare tribute to a civilian when Gen. Freddy Padilla – who commanded the elaborately planned rescue of the rebels' highest-value hostages – saluted Betancourt on the airport tarmac Wednesday.

And many Colombians were surely impressed when Betancourt saluted back and promised to share what she knows of rebel methods with military leaders, joking that she earned “a Ph.D. in knowledge of the FARC” while in captivity.

“With such gestures, she had the soldiers in her pocket,” said Chavez.

The next presidential election is almost two years off, but speculation is swirling. Many Colombians wonder whether the overwhelmingly popular Uribe will try to change the constitution so he can seek a third term.

Meanwhile, former Defense Minister Rafael Pardo has already declared his candidacy, and another would-be president is current Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, who gets considerable credit for the mission's success.