By Alexandra Alper and Zach Dyer SAN JOSE, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Costa Rica's centrist ruling party candidate Johnny Araya took a strong initial lead in Sunday's presidential election, but could still face a run-off, early results showed. Araya, a former mayor of the capital San Jose, had around 36 percent support with votes in from 9 percent of polling booths, while left-leaning newcomer Luis Guillermo Solis was in second place with 21 percent. Left-wing lawmaker Jose Maria Villalta was third with 17.4 percent. An April run-off between the top two vote-getters is required if no single candidate wins more than 40 percent of the vote on Sunday. Araya has promised to reduce poverty and has sought to distance himself from President Laura Chinchilla's scandal-plagued government while painting rivals as radicals. Araya on Sunday proclaimed his candidacy "the safest, most responsible option" for Central America's second-largest economy. But voter anger over government corruption buoyed a challenge from his left-leaning rivals, who also promised to tackle inequality in the coffee-producing nation. Solis, who cut his teeth working in Costa Rica's foreign ministry, has appealed to voters by promising to stamp out corruption, pledging to improve infrastructure and overhaul the country's universal health care provider. He nudged ahead of Villalta after trailing him in polls before the vote. But some see Araya as the more moderate option. "There are two extremes, the extreme right ... and communism. We favor the center and that's the best option for Costa Rica," said David Perez, 21, who works for a family-owned business. The eventual winner will have to tackle growing government debt that totals more than half of gross domestic product, as generous salaries and mandatory education spending weigh on a weak tax take.