Next door to the mansion where Kenya's richest man, presidential contender and now war crimes suspect Uhuru Kenyatta grew up near the capital Nairobi, stands Francis Karanja's mud hut with a tin roof.

Father of two Karanja voted for the 50-year-old Kenyatta to be his member of parliament, hoping the son of Kenya's founding father, Jomo Kenyatta, would help him rise out of the poverty that traps millions of Kenyans.

As you can see, Kenyatta is my neighbour. I feel he has neglected me since we voted him into parliament. We still struggle to make ends meet, said Karanja, 39, who ekes out a meagre living selling milk he pours from a large jerrycan into one-litre bottles for his customers.

But despite his disappointment, and Kenyatta's indictment last month for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Karanja says he will vote for the Kenyatta scion in a coming presidential election.

I feel sympathy for him because of the charges he faces and will vote for him again. We Kikuyu are loyal to our own, said Karanja, referring to the largest of Kenya's more than 40 tribes to which both he and Kenyatta belong.

This is a sign that tribal alliances trump ideology, or even a government's record of rule, in East Africa's biggest economy, which was shaken by bloody post-poll violence following disputed 2007 elections.

At least 1,220 people were killed in the worst communal fighting in Kenya's history and more than 300,000 were driven from their homes by the bloodshed which forms the basis of the ICC charges against Kenyatta and three other prominent leaders.

The ICC move has split the country, with some saying the war crimes court charges make Kenyatta unfit for public office. Kenyatta, however, is appealing, and has vowed to keep alive his bid to be elected president in polls due by March 2013.

Far from relinquishing his political ambitions as a result of the indictment, he has quit his government job as finance minister, swapped his designer suits for a baseball cap and Nelson Mandela-style shirts, and hit the campaign trail.

Rivals had hoped the confirmation of the ICC charges would signal his political demise but the opposite seems to be happening.

An opinion poll issued by Ipsos-Synovate Kenya on February 6 showed his ratings in the race to be president have risen since the ICC charges, while the lead of Prime Minister Raila Odinga, the frontrunner and Kenyatta's political nemesis, is slipping.

Uhuru is a hero because of (the) ICC, said Hezbon Ngaruiya, a church minister near the Gatundu home of Kenyatta, whose first name Uhuru means freedom in Swahili, a widely-spoken language in the country and in East Africa.

The case has not hurt him, in fact it has made him more popular than ever. He will save a lot of money which he would have used on publicity during the campaigns, said Ngaruiya.

A LOT OF BITTERNESS

The ICC says Kenyatta mobilised an outlawed Mafia-style Kikuyu Mungiki criminal gang to kill members of the Kalenjin and Luo tribes, which both backed Odinga in the 2007 election.

Kenyatta, who is ranked Kenya's richest man by Forbes magazine, has rejected the war crimes charges.

The post-election violence erupted after supporters of Odinga claimed that President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, had stolen victory in the polls. Attacks on Kikuyu supporters of Kibaki triggered a bloody cycle of retaliatory attacks against Kalenjins and Luos.

A graduate of prestigious Amherst College in Massachusetts in the Unites States, Kenyatta is heir to his late father's vast business empire, spanning land ownership, the country's biggest dairy company, five-star hotels, and interests in banking, insurance and exclusive schools.

In his Kikuyu heartland, many of those driven from their homes by the violence in 2007 and 2008 are still destitute and languishing in camps more than four years later. Their leaders' promises to find them new places to live have come to nought.

Yet many still express ethnic loyalty to Kenyatta. A feeling prevails among many Kikuyus that Odinga's Luo tribe has escaped judgment by the ICC, and this will sway their vote in the upcoming election.

Anthony Nganga lives at a camp in Kikuyu-dominated Nyandarua, far from his Kiambaa farm in the Rift Valley where his family was attacked and had to flee to save their lives.

Three-quarters of those who should be in The Hague are still free, said Nganga, a Kikuyu like Kenyatta.

The Luos also killed Kikuyus and none of their leaders was charged. We have a lot of bitterness about that. This is why people feel the ICC process is flawed and dismiss it altogether. It is also why Uhuru is still popular even here, he said.

Nganga's wife Mumbi and newborn son survived the worst single attack of the violence when a Kalenjin mob torched a church on New Year's Day 2008, killing nearly 30 people.

ALLIANCE AGAINST ODINGA

Kenyatta wants to be a flag-bearer for the Kikuyu, but that bloc alone would not be enough to propel him to the presidency.

Staying a step ahead of his rivals, he has formed a new alliance with William Ruto, an ethnic Kalenjin, the third largest tribe in the country.

Ruto has also been indicted by the ICC for mobilising the Kalenjin to fight the Kikuyu after the December 27, 2007 election.

So the alliance both unites two communities that attacked each other, and also forms a strong voting bloc.

Kenyatta's clarion call to his supporters is tuko pamoja in Swahili meaning 'we are together', alluding to the tribal alliances he is forging.

At joint rallies since the ICC ruling, Kenyatta is regularly feted like a rock star, as he and Ruto kneel side by side to receiving the blessing of priests and pastors.

But with both men running for president, it is not clear who would take the back seat when it comes to a vote, although for now they profess a common enemy in Odinga.

The prime minister is the man standing between Kenyatta and his ambition to walk in his father's footsteps. Odinga commands a cult-like following among his Luo tribe which hails from the west of the country near Lake Victoria.

Odinga, 67, known as Agwambo which means controversial or daring, represents the strongest challenge yet to the Kikuyu.

Two of Kenya's three presidents since independence from Britain in 1963 have been Kikuyu, the exception being former president Daniel arap Moi, a Kalenjin like Ruto.

Many Kikuyus have said they fear an Odinga presidency. Critics express fears that he would be anti-business.

They cite Odinga's remarks in a biography indicating he was a plotter in a failed coup attempt in 1982. The fact that he was educated in former communist East Germany - he named his first-born son Fidel after Cuba's Fidel Castro - has raised eyebrows.

LUOS SAY NOW OUR TURN

Although Odinga projects himself as a champion of the poor, he is part of Kenya's rich elite with interests in oil, a liquid petroleum gas cylinder maker and a molasses factory producing ethanol for export. But his wealth is dwarfed by Kenyatta's.

Odinga's constituency includes Nairobi's Kibera slum, one of Africa's largest and a haven for bandits. Critics say he has done little to fight poverty in Kibera, but again, ethnically-aligned supporters seem ready to forgive this.

Why can't they leave it to Raila (Odinga)? He gave Kibaki votes, it is now our turn, said Roslyn Akinyi, 36, a Luo, squatting on a low stool poking her fork at fish sizzling on an open fire in Kibera.

Many Kikuyus say they are grateful to Odinga for throwing his weight behind Kibaki to help him win the presidency in 2002, crushing a challenge from his then rival Kenyatta.

But it seems few now countenance returning the favour.

The Kikuyu and Luo have had a bitter feud that goes back to when Odinga's father was vice president to Kenyatta's father. They fell out, and Odinga's father, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, became a vocal opposition critic of Jomo Kenyatta.

This still counts in Kibaki's home turf, where tea estates owned by the president and other neighbouring farms carpet the hillsides in green. With Kibaki not eligible to run, this means Kenyatta gets the nod here, not Odinga.

We cannot vote for someone we don't trust. Uhuru is our son, said Simon Kiboi, a 60-year-old tea farmer in Kibaki's constituency of Othaya deep inside central Kenya.

LEGAL HURDLES?

It is not however certain Kenyatta will be allowed to run for the presidency with the ICC charges hanging over his head.

Rights groups have asked the High Court to bar him and Ruto from running for the top seat.

The court has banned public debate about whether they can take part until it decides whether the ICC charges disqualify them. This gag also extends to the media.

Whatever the High Court decides, either party is likely to appeal, and the case could end up before Kenya's Supreme Court and could take months to resolve.

Should the ICC grant them the green light to appeal against their charges, it would also take months for the appeal court to hear their petitions, during which time Kenyatta could potentially still run for the presidency and win.

If their appeals to the ICC are rejected by the court, a trial may start this year. This could lock them out of the race because it could be unworkable to attend court sessions in the Hague and mount a serious campaign in Kenya at the same time.

Were Kenyatta to be put on trial and excluded from the race to the presidency, the Kikuyu say they would lack a strong candidate to retain their hold on power. It is not clear if he would back another candidate if he was barred from running.

The Kikuyu would have no real leader if Kenyatta does not run, there is no precedent for such a scenario, said anti-corruption campaigner and political commentator John Githongo.

VOTE OUTSIDE THE BOX

There are other presidential hopefuls too.

Martha Karua, a lawyer who hails from a tribe that is a cousin to the Kikuyu, and Peter Kenneth, a Kikuyu junior minister with a background in banking, also want to follow in Kibaki's footsteps and are challenging Kenyatta.

Analysts give them little chance of succeeding, but they concede the two would gain more supporters if Kenyatta was locked out of the presidential race by a possible ICC trial.

Karua, known as the 'Iron Lady' after walking out on Moi at a public rally years ago, told Reuters at her constituency near Mount Kenya that electing leaders based on tribes does not pay.

Those displaced by the post-election violence are Kikuyus like Kibaki. Are they not still living in tents? she asked.

Kenneth's supporters, mainly well-to-do Kikuyus, say he should be president because he has helped create new jobs. But even in his constituency, some say Kenyatta would get their vote because Kenneth has not yet been tested on the national stage.

While Kenyatta's support among poor Kikuyu appears strong, among the young, educated, wealthy or urban professionals where Karua and Kenneth have found support, backing for the son of a Kenyan political legend is more ambivalent.

In Gatundu, Naomi Kamau, a 25-year-old teacher born in the area said not all Kikuyus were behind Kenyatta.

I'm unlikely to vote for someone facing such charges, and secondly I don't trust the company keeps. I'll vote based on their policies, even if it is Odinga or Karua, she said.

We have to start voting outside the box.

(Editing by David Clarke and Pascal Fletcher)