updated 10/24/2005 8:24:53 AM ET 2005-10-24T12:24:53

President Nestor Kirchner scored a midterm election triumph as his two-year-old government picked up new support in Congress and his wife appeared headed to a runaway Senate victory, according to exit polls.

A once obscure governor from remote Patagonia, Kirchner leaped onto the national stage in May 2003 after the deepest Argentine economic crisis on record, winning the presidency with just 22 percent of the vote.

The center-left president has since spent more than two years managing a gargantuan debt default and other remnants of the crisis while working to build a national power base, hinting he might seek re-election once his term ends in 2007.

Exit polls forecast a lopsided victory for Kirchner’s wife, Cristina, in the highest-profile Senate race.

Sunday’s elections renewed 24 of 72 Senate seats and 127 of the 256 House seats, a midterm ballot widely seen as a referendum on the center-left president’s two years in power.

Some 26 million Argentines were registered to vote and local media predicted heavy turnout above 70 percent in many areas.

Television and pollster exit polls showed first lady Cristina Kirchner taking a commanding 20-percentage point lead over former first lady Hilda “Chiche” Duhalde in an acrimonious Senate battle in Buenos Aires province, home to a quarter of Argentina’s 36 million people.

Hilda Duhalde is the standard-bearer for her husband, former President Eduardo Duhalde — Nestor Kirchner’s predecessor and chief political rival within the fractious but ruling Peronist party.

New allies for Kirchner
Both women were expected to head to the Senate as first- and second-place finishers in the battle for three seats from Buenos Aires province.

Political analyst Felipe Noguera said Kirchner, who spent more than two years ruling frequently by presidential decree in the wake of the crisis, should now find new allies in Congress for his legislative agenda.

“Because of the economic crisis, Kirchner ruled by decree for 2½ years and basically because of the crisis, everyone went along with that,” said Noguera. “Now he’s trying to generate his own majority in Congress.”

Nonetheless, Noguera said until the new Congress is seated next December, it won’t be clear just how many of the Peronists who dominate in the Congress will be controlled by Kirchner or rival clans such as Duhalde’s.

The Peronist party, though fractious and feuding, has dominated political life in Argentina for decades since former strongman Juan Domingo Peron and his first wife “Evita” ruled in the mid-20th century, championing the needs of the working poor.

Ramona Marquez, a 42-year-old Argentine worker, said she thought the Kirchners were doing a good job stabilizing the country’s economy despite chronic double-digit unemployment and high poverty.

Cristina “has character,” Marquez shouted above the celebration din.

Since taking office in 2003, Kirchner has led a controversial restructuring of Argentina’s debt default and gave the state a greater role in the economy while maintaining high popular poll ratings

His warm relations with Venezuela’s populist President Hugo Chavez have drawn criticism from some quarters but others laud him for ending an era of unfettered support for U.S. policies.

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