Argentina's political power couple echo Clintons

A distant figure looms over Sen. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the likely winner of Sunday's presidential election here. And it isn't her husband, Nestor, Argentina's current president, nor even the legendary Eva Peron.

Shadowing Sen. Kirchner, 54, as she completes an extraordinary bid to succeed her husband and become this country's first elected female president, is U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, who is mounting her own presidential effort thousands of miles to the north.

Comparisons between the current and former first ladies have become a staple of the campaign. Both are lawyers who met their future husbands in college. Both married former Southern governors who became presidents and presided over remarkable economic booms. Both are political celebrities instantly recognized by their iconic first names.

"Her model is not Evita. Her model is Hillary," says Rosendo Fraga, director of the Center for Studies of the New Majority, an independent research group.

That may be an overstatement. The two powerful female politicians share as many differences as similarities. "Queen Cristina," as she is known, has a personal style that bears little resemblance to that of the junior senator from New York. Her attention to physical appearance has prompted repeated "Botox" gibes from the news media and her leading opponent. Her passionate speaking style is far removed from Clinton's coolly rational delivery.

Sen. Kirchner, whom polls show with an enormous lead over a splintered opposition, also has noted publicly that unlike Hillary Clinton, she was a prominent legislator before her husband entered the Casa Rosada, Argentina's presidential mansion. No single issue is associated with Kirchner's rise in the way that Clinton is linked with health care reform. But the Argentine senator has spoken out against political corruption and in defense of victims of the 1976-1983 Argentine military dictatorship that killed or "disappeared" up to 30,000 people, and she has been an influential adviser to her husband.

Threats to economic revival

Far more than Clinton, who campaigns on her record in the U.S. Senate, Kirchner's candidacy rests almost entirely upon her husband's achievements in steering Argentina through an economic contraction equivalent to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Relying on sometimes unorthodox policies, including price controls and export taxes, Nestor Kirchner quarterbacked an economic revival after the country's 2002 default that defied conventional economic wisdom. He restructured much of the country's debt, paid off its International Monetary Fund loans — aided by the proceeds of bond sales to the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — and capitalized upon high prices for the country's chief exports, soybeans and grain.

"He's the best president we've had. … It's much better today than it was before. I'm much better off," says Manuel Ragno, 61, who runs a lottery kiosk in the working-class La Boca neighborhood.

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