Colombian leader weighs a 3rd term

President Alvaro Uribe was master of ceremonies the night Colombian military intelligence agents disguised as humanitarian workers airlifted Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages to freedom.

Elated former captives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, sat to his right at the news conference. Uribe's top generals lined his left.

The nation – and much of the world – watched, enthralled.

The success of Wednesday's bloodless mission has recharged speculation about a third term for Uribe: Will he try to change the constitution again – which enabled his second term – so he can run in 2010?

The wonkish, diminutive but tirelessly tenacious politician, who turned 56 Friday and consistently wins approval ratings above 70 percent in opinion surveys, has been cagey on that score.

Those who oppose the idea say it would put him in league with his continental rival, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who has been widely branded autocratic for doing his utmost to try to stay president for life.

“Uribe's audacious and take-charge approach has worked, but there may also be a downside if he goes too far in concentrating power. There is reason to be concerned,” said Michael Shifter, an analyst with the Washington-based nonpartisan think tank Inter-American Dialogue.

But whether he tries to extend his rule, there is no denying that Uribe got an astronomical political boost from the operation in which undercover soldiers tricked Latin America's last major rebel army into handing over Betancourt, three U.S. military contractors and 11 soldiers and police.

Betancourt, who was kidnapped while running against Uribe in 2002, is probably the only candidate who could defeat the president if he seeks re-election.

The day of her rescue, Betancourt praised Uribe's leadership. And the FARC's cruel treatment of her – keeping her in chains 24 hours a day for three full years – makes her unlikely to favor rapprochement with the rebels.

But she is still a wild card: She made a name for herself as a senator in the 1990s when she denounced the widespread drug-trafficking-related corruption that was sullying Congress. Her actions provoked death threats that forced Betancourt to send her children abroad.

And then there is the question of how long Uribe – or a successor – could keep up Colombia's costly war on the FARC, which depends greatly on U.S. funding.

As yet unknown is whether the U.S. president who is elected in November will modify aid – about $600 million annually since 2000 – amid a recession that appears now to have reached Colombia, where growth is easing and prices are rising.

“It's very possible peace negotiations would again become a necessity because continuing to invest 5 percent of GDP (gross domestic product) won't be easy in a recession,” said Leon Valencia, a top Colombian political analyst.

But at least until the next political crisis, Uribe can bask in the adulation of pulling off a mission that robbed the FARC of the high-profile hostages who were its most precious bargaining chips.

He may even have made some headway with a woman he has long tried to woo: Betancourt's mother, Yolanda Pulecio.

Throughout her daughter's six-year captivity, she had very publicly and passionately criticized Uribe for preferring a military rescue to negotiations.

Uribe, a twinkle in his eye, couldn't help but mention Pulecio during Wednesday's celebratory ceremony.

“I wanted to win a little of her love,” he said.