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By Patricia Zengerle

AREQUIPA, Peru (Reuters) - Thousands of brightly clad Peruvians rallied to mark the formal end of campaigning on Thursday as pollsters said nationalist Ollanta Humala remained ahead in the presidential race but was unlikely to win in the first round.


In Arequipa, in southern Peru where the front-running retired army commander's support is strongest, the central Plaza de Armas was so crowded with thousands of Humala supporters that some hung in trees and from lampposts.


Bands played and speakers exhorted people to give Humala a big victory on Sunday, removing the need for a second round.


"The first round, the first round!" they chanted and cheered, many dressed in red T-shirts reading: "For love of Peru," similar to those in which Humala campaigns.


Right-of-center Lourdes Flores, the business favorite whom polls put in second place, and center-left former President Alan Garcia, in third place, both closed their campaigns in the capital, Lima, where police said they were deploying more than 7,000 officers to keep order.


Peruvian law mandates that Thursday must be the last day of campaigning before the election.


Pollsters said on Thursday that Humala still led, but remained below the 50 percent support he would need on April 9 to avoid a second round next month.


Alfredo Torres, director of Apoyo, considered Peru's most reliable polling company, told Reuters exact figures would be released on Saturday, but the latest survey showed a similar trend to an Apoyo poll released on Sunday that gave Humala 31 percent versus 26 percent for Flores and 23 percent for Garcia.


Torres suggested that Garcia, who heads the center-left APRA party, was gaining on Flores.


A separate survey by polling firm CPI showed Flores had gained ground on Humala to statistically tie for the lead and that Humala would likely be defeated in a second round.


Flores, who was the front-runner in the polls until mid-February, saw her voter support rise slightly to 27.6 percent, just ahead of Humala, CPI said.


Humala, who has campaigned to restrict private investment in Peru, slipped 5.6 points since the last CPI poll a week ago, dropping to 25.9 percent, the survey found.


"Humala's support has fallen because of a barrage of attacks against him these last few days ... That has generated a fear of voting for the unknown," CPI director Manuel Saavedra told Reuters.


But in Arequipa, Humala's supporters were as enthusiastic as ever about their hero. Many were indigenous Peruvians, and there were more rainbow-striped Incan flags than those of Peru.


Many said one reason they adore their candidate, who is of mixed race in a country long dominated by a European-descended elite, is that he respects them.


"He will do more for our children than the others. He wants dignity for us," said Fida Huamani, 40, an Amerindian woman selling Incan flags and cheering at the rally.


(Additional reporting by Maria Luisa Palomino and Teresa Cespedes in Lima)

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