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President in vow on miners' rescue

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera has said he hopes 33 miners trapped nearly half a mile underground will be home by Christmas - a lengthy rescue timeline that does not square with experts' shorter estimates but could reflect a political strategy aimed at avoiding unmet expectations.

The mine disaster, which began with an underground collapse on August 5 and captured the world's attention when the men were found alive 17 days later, presents both huge opportunities and risks for the billionaire-turned-politician who took office earlier this year.

"Pinera is gambling his presidency on this accident," said Patricio Navia, a professor of Latin American studies at New York University. "Of course, he has to get them out now. It would be impossible for him to govern if the rescue operation fails."

Officials at all levels, from the mining minister to Pinera, have vigorously rejected shorter rescue timelines. But when discussing their own projections, they add that they are also "exploring other options," an apparent acknowledgement that it could happen faster than they are saying.

In his speech, Pinera said there is no chance the miners will be freed by Chile's independence day celebrations, which begin on September 18, but added that the government is doing all it can "so we can celebrate Christmas and New Year's" with them.

While no one claims the men could be rescued in weeks, the government's timeline is extremely conservative - twice as long as it should take, experts say.

"Four months? Never," Eduardo Hurtado, a geologist on the team that drilled the first bore hole to make contact with the miners, said. "If there are no major mechanical problems, this can be done in two months, three at the most."

The deep-drilling team's recent experience, carving a total of three bore holes to communicate with and deliver food to the miners, will give it a head start, while any mechanical problems that come up with the drills can probably be solved in six hours or less, Hurtado said. The government has said it is working 24 hours a day.

Pinera's handling of the rescue timeline is in step with his emerging form of governance: Manage expectations, stay in front of the issues - and cameras - and control the message. Pinera's team even managed the stunning news that the miners had been found alive on August 22.

After rescuers first made contact with the miners, word quickly spread to their waiting families, who were seen on live television cheering, crying and hugging each other. Then a mining ministry official appeared, telling them it wasn't official - they would have to wait for confirmation. Minutes went by until Pinera arrived from the capital to personally read the miners' thrilling note before the cameras: "We are all well in the shelter, the 33."

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