Indonesian military leaders aren't known for their fan bases. But the baby-faced Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is turning out to be an exception. Last week 15,000 people flocked to a football stadium in the northeast city of Manado to catch a glimpse of the retired four-star Army general and the country's newest political phenomenon. Three weeks ahead of the country's first direct presidential election, Yudhoyono is enjoying a commanding lead--and a rock star's popularity. Recent opinion polls show him with nearly 50 percent of the vote among decided voters, with his opponents, President Megawati Sukarnoputri and former armed-forces chief Wiranto, at about 15 percent each. The 54-year-old presidential candidate--fondly known as "SBY"--has electrified supporters on the campaign trail with the promise of strong leadership mixed with unwavering support for democracy and human rights. "Together, the whole country will change to be a better Indonesia--more peaceful, more secure, more prosperous, more democratic!" he told the cheering crowd last week. "One for all and all for one!"

Six years of a chaotic and sometimes violent democratic transition, following the ouster of strongman ruler Suharto in 1998, has many Indonesians longing for the good old days of stable, authoritarian rule--minus the economic plunder and human-rights abuses. Indeed, a recent survey shows that 47 percent of the public wants the armed forces, which were all but stripped of their formal political role four years ago, to once again take center stage.

If anything explains Yudhoyono's incredible popularity, it is probably the deft way he has positioned himself as the solid middle-ground choice between the old authoritarian and new democratic Indonesia, at a time when the country needs a little bit of both. "If we practice only on the democratization side," he told NEWSWEEK, "and we neglect to maintain our stability and public security, then we may encounter what we've had in the past: an unstable situation." Voters have been enthralled by Yudhoyono's carefully cultivated image of strength, but even more so by his humble, self-effacing manner. "They need a firm hand, but they need a father figure," says James Filgo, a retired U. S. Army officer who ran a military-training program in the United States that Yudhoyono and other rising Indonesian officers attended. "He's refreshing, and best of all he's not tainted."

A career military man, Yudhoyono is one of the few senior officers not to have been directly implicated in the atrocities and human-rights abuses blamed on the Indonesian military. (In 1996, he was chief of staff of the Jakarta military command when military-backed mobs attacked the headquarters of the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party, killing five people and leaving at least 23 others missing. Nevertheless, he was not named on a suspect list released by military police two years ago that included several high-ranking officers.) Born into a military family in East Java in 1949, he joined the Army out of high school and shot through the ranks. His reputation as a professional soldier with an appreciation for human rights landed him a job as chief military observer with the U.N. peacekeeping force in Bosnia in 1995. Three years later, when pro-democracy demonstrations forced Suharto to step down, Yudhoyono, then the chief of military territorial affairs, is believed to have persuaded hard-line generals not to launch a Tiananmen-style crackdown.

Indonesians became more familiar with him as Megawati's security minister. In recent years the country experienced a steady stream of crises, from terrorist attacks by Islamic militants to a resurgent separatist movement in far-flung Aceh province. But Megawati, the daughter of Indonesia's flamboyant founding father, Sukarno, made few public statements about the violence. Almost by default, Yudhoyono became the face of Indonesia, reassuring a nervous public with his apparent resolve. "Everyone wants the strong hand," says one Jakarta-based political observer. "He's a moderate, reform-minded general who steadied a sinking ship."

But when Yudhoyono had a falling-out with Megawati in March, he became an immediate political contender. Name recognition more than made up for his lack of political backing; his frequent TV appearances--he was the first government official to criticize the Muslim terrorists who carried out the Bali bombings in 2002 as anti-Islamic--had given him a profile almost as high as Megawati's. In April his newly formed Democrat Party won 10 percent of the seats in the 550-member Parliament, allowing him to contest the presidency. And on the campaign trail his good looks, broad shoulders and charm--he often serenades voters with a love song--is winning admirers. "He has charisma, and he is making effective use of the media," says Salim Said, a political analyst, noting that Yudhoyono has particular appeal as a poor boy made good. "I think they want a leader who can talk to them, that can listen to them," says Yudhoyono.

Given that this is the first time Indonesians will directly elect their president, it's unclear whether SBY's lead will narrow as the election approaches. A candidate must capture more than 50 percent of the vote to win the presidency outright. Otherwise, a runoff election will be held on Sept. 20 between the two top finishers. Megawati, despite bringing badly needed political and macroeconomic stability to the country, appears to be fading in popularity. Once the symbol of democratic opposition to Suharto, she's now the target of voter anger for rising food and gasoline prices and rampant unemployment. Wiranto is as charismatic as Yudhoyono, but is widely associated with Suharto's brutal New Order regime. His alleged misdeeds resurfaced last month when a United Nations-supported war-crimes tribunal in East Timor issued an arrest warrant for his role in the violence that followed the territory's independence vote in 1999.

But the challengers are not out yet. Wiranto's Golkar Party and Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, finished first and second in April's parliamentary election, and unlike Yudhoyono's fledgling Democrat Party, have formidable grass-roots machines and sizable war chests. There are already allegations of vote-buying by both PDI-P and Golkar, as well as a whisper campaign against Yudhoyono that includes claims that he's being funded by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. "The big question is whether political parties will matter in the first-ever direct presidential election," says Douglas Ramage, Indonesia country director of the Asia Foundation.

Reputation may define the candidates more than policy differences. All three have vowed to reduce poverty, create jobs and end endemic corruption, while offering scant details of how this will be done. But they are at least correct in identifying economic issues as the country's key challenge. With more than 2 million young people entering the job market each year, economists say Indonesia's GDP must grow by 7 percent annually if those citizens are to find work. This year it is expected to post only 4.5 percent growth.

What has been lacking is a return of foreign direct investment and a revival of exports--the twin engines that drove the Indonesian economy during the boom years of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Unlike other countries hard hit by the Asian financial crisis, Indonesia's economic recovery has been plodding and, despite a return of political stability, the country is still shunned by international investors. The reasons are myriad, ranging from a crumbling infrastructure, high minimum wages for relatively unproductive labor and economic policies that provide few tax incentives and plenty of red tape. A series of dubious court verdicts this year against foreign companies has reinforced the sense that the judiciary is far from impartial.

Indonesia's list of problems is so long it makes one wonder why anyone would even want to be president. But count on SBY to keep wooing voters. During last week's rally, the former general grabbed a microphone and began belting out the unofficial anthem of his campaign, the Indonesian song "Rainbow." The adoring crowd went wild as the candidate crooned, "I have to be honest--I love you." In a few weeks he'll know whether the feeling is mutual.