Eduardo Di Baia  /  AP
Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, right, and first lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner welcome Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa near Buenos Aires on Sept. 20 during a two-day visit.
updated 10/22/2007 3:45:18 PM ET 2007-10-22T19:45:18

She met her future husband while studying law and joined him as he rose from governor of a small state to the presidency. A powerful first lady and senator in her own right, she’s now campaigning hard to be the first woman elected president of her country.

Hillary Rodham Clinton? Try Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Argentina’s first lady.

The wife of President Nestor Kirchner is the clear front-runner on the presidential ballot, favored to clobber 12 rivals in voting Oct. 28 and succeed her husband at the helm of South America’s second-largest economy.

And like Bill Clinton, who jokes about becoming “first laddie” someday, President Kirchner says he’s looking forward to becoming “first gentleman.” If the polls are right, Kirchner will place the presidential sash on his wife’s shoulders on Dec. 10, ending his four-year term and launching hers.

Powerful women are nothing new in Argentine politics. Evita Peron set the mold in the 1950s as the wife of dictator Juan Peron. And in more recent times, women across Latin America have been reaching the top via the ballot box. In 2005 Chile elected Michelle Bachelet president, and now its Argentine neighbors are also getting ready for una presidenta.

Couple may hold power indefinitely
While the Kirchners have expressed no desire to hold power indefinitely, critics pounced on the president’s unusual decision to forgo seeking a second four-year term at the height of his popularity. As long as they keep trading places and winning elections, the couple could stay in the Casa Rosada indefinitely, sidestepping the constitutional limit of eight consecutive years in office.

For now, this is Cristina Fernandez’s hour, and her passion seems to be striking a chord with voters.

At a campaign rally, the stadium thundered with the chants of 7,000 fans: “We feel it! We feel it! Cristina, president!”

“Get used to it,” she responded, wagging a finger. “It’s Presidenta!”

Leading human rights advocate
With her long brown hair and glamorous manner, Fernandez overshadows her husband at campaign rallies, and in her fiery way she has become a leading advocate for the center-left.

As far back as 2003, she angrily pounded her Senate desk as she demanded the Supreme Court repeal amnesty for officials accused of crimes during the 1976-83 military dictatorship, when as many as 30,000 Argentines were kidnapped and killed, including some of the Kirchners’ friends.

“In a globalized world, human rights are not a matter of ‘left’ or ‘right,’ but a matter of humanity,” she shouted, shaking visibly. “Once and for all, our country needs to make it known that those who broke the law of civilized society will be punished.”

The high court listened, scrapped the amnesty, and “dirty war” trials resumed last year.

Kirchner brought stability
Argentines are only now overcoming a deep distrust of elected officials, bred by hyperinflation, recession, corruption and failed promises in the first years of the new millennium. These woes provoked huge pot-banging street protests that forced a succession of presidents from office.

Kirchner’s election in 2003 restored stability to the government. It also brought pragmatism.

Like Kirchner, Fernandez takes care to avoid raising expectations of radical change, but many Argentines would be happy if she simply keeps her promise to continue the economic recovery begun by her husband.

The slender hope of opposition candidates — led by ex-Congresswoman Elisa Carrio on the left and former Economy Minister Roberto Lavagna on the right — is to trigger a runoff by collectively dragging Fernandez below 40 percent.

But Fernandez had 44 percent support to Carrio’s 15 and Lavagna’s 13 in a nationwide poll by respected independent pollster Ricardo Rouvier. The survey of 1,200 voters in early October gave a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.

Many challenges
Still, inflation is high, corruption scandals have tarnished Kirchner’s government, and the opposition is trying to capitalize on fears the couple will become what rival campaigns call “una monarKia,” spelling the word for monarchy with a K for Kirchner.

“Queen Cristina” is a label that has stuck in part because of her frequent trips abroad to meet European and Latin American leaders. Argentine newspapers love showing Fernandez in designer dresses. But rivals use the images to paint her as aloof and distant from voters.

So she has seemingly borrowed a page from Evita Peron’s woman-of-the-people playbook, appearing in public with factory workers, the elderly and mothers of drug addicts.

Fernandez and Kirchner met as law students in her hometown of La Plata in the 1970s, a time of leftist ferment in the universities. They married in 1975 and had two children. Kirchner served three terms as Santa Cruz governor, while Fernandez is a three-term senator now representing powerful Buenos Aires province.

Like Bill and Hillary, the couple are said to consult each other on everything, especially political matters, and Kirchner is his wife’s cheerleader-in-chief, promising she’ll be an even better president than him.

Like ex-President Clinton, Nestor Kirchner says he’s looking forward to life as a private citizen. Nobody seems to believe this — and none of his wife’s supporters seems to care.

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