STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
LYNN NEARY, host:
And I'm Lynn Neary.
In Argentina, the wife of President Nestor Kirchner is the clear frontrunner in the field of 14 candidates running in Sunday's presidential election. Pundits say Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is likely to be elected in the first round of voting, taking the reins from her husband and crowning the so-called Clintons of South America as the premier power couple.
NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.
JULIE McCARTHY: Argentina's glamorous senator and first lady is the star of this political theater that has all the atmosphere of a soccer match.
(Soundbite of crowd)
McCARTHY: Raucous youth, exhausted mothers coddling babies, and bureaucrats who owe their jobs to Peronist Party patronage assemble in the sweltering gymnasium in Bahia Blanca. This port town eight hours south of Buenos Aires has not always favored the Peronist Party of Cristina Kirchner, but not since General Juan Peron's iconic wife Evita had they seen anything quite like her.
In a political culture dominated by men in gray suits, Cristina's flowing auburn hair drapes over an impeccably tailored white suit. In her raspy voice, the diminutive wife of the president, who's credited with reviving Argentina after the 2001 collapse, delivers an impassioned appeal for the continued renovation of the country.
Senator CRISTINA FERNANDEZ DE KIRCHNER (Presidential Candidate, Argentina): (Spanish spoken)
McCARTHY: Knowing all we've achieved, she says. I invite you this Sunday to solidify not only our economic progress, but also the reconstruction of values in Argentina: the value of work, of education, health, housing, and the value of national dignity, she says.
Cristina also encourages the belief that under her things will remain much the same. Her slogan is: We know what's lacking, and we know how to fix it.
I asked 27-year-old psychologist and Cristina supporter Leticia Claverin...
What is missing?
Dr. LETICIA CLAVERIN (Cristina Supporter): (Spanish spoken)
McCARTHY: Fewer poor people, she says, less poverty, more jobs.
Just as Hillary Clinton took an active role when Bill Clinton was president, Cristina Kirchner has been one of her husband's top advisers since he took office four years ago amid Argentina's economic crisis. Like the Clintons, the Kirchners met in law school, and when Nestor Kirchner was governor in Patagonia, Cristina Kirchner was a national legislator.
Rather than seek a second term, the popular Mr. Kirchner anointed his wife as his successor, hand-picking Cristina as the Peronist Party candidate.
Economist Pablo Rojo, among others, calls the move an assault on democracy.
Mr. PABLO ROJO (Economist): Sharing the power with your own wife - that's a monarchy. It is not a republic.
McCARTHY: Political scientist Sergio Berensztein says the nepotism of Cristina's candidacy does not hurt her among many Argentine voters satisfied with the economic status quo.
Dr. SERGIO BERENSZTEIN (Torcuato di Tella University, Buenos Aires): We are sort of resigned and to accept the high levels of corruption as long we have growth and jobs. And that's, I think, a good critical but yet accurate description of this administration.
McCARTHY: A fragmented political opposition has also cleared Cristina's path. As she taps the traditional Peronist base of rural and urban poor, careful stage managing is also smoothing her anticipated glide to election. She refuses to debate, avoids news conferences, and tends to make choreographed appearances abroad.
Analyst Rosendo Fraga says her meeting with former President Bill Clinton in New York last month was significant because he says Cristina's pre-eminent political goal, should she become president, is Hillary.
Mr. ROSENDO FRAGA (Political Analyst): Hillary. She thinks that the most important for her is to establish a new kind of relationship with the U.S. if Hillary is president, a real change in the diplomatic style.
McCARTHY: In a rare radio interview this week, Cristina Kirchner brushed aside comparisons with the U.S. former first lady, eager to be seen as her own woman.
Senator KIRCHNER: (Spanish spoken)
McCARTHY: We've both been senators and lawyers, but that's it, she says. I don't want to be compared to Hillary Clinton or Evita Peron or anyone.
Argentina's first lady and leading contender to become president said there's nothing better than being yourself.
Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Buenos Aires.