Argentina's political power couple echo Clintons

Later, as she shook hands with well-wishers, several voters praised the government's economic record and maintained that the senator's gender was of little interest. Ambitious women in politics are nothing new here. By law, one-half of the House and one-third of the Senate seats must be filled by women. The Peronist movement the Kirchners lead has a long tradition of powerful women, from Eva Peron ("Evita") in the 1940s to Isabel Peron, dictator Juan Peron's third wife, who assumed power after his death in 1974.

"We don't think of her being a woman. She's a strong person, and we've had plenty of men who've failed in the presidency," said Hector Larretape, 60, a worker in a steel mill who attended the rally outside the hospital.

Nestor Kirchner, a provincial leader with little national reputation, rose to the presidency after a remarkable series of such presidential failures. During the Argentine financial crisis of 2001-02, after the country was forced to abandon its policy of pegging the peso to the dollar on a 1-to-1 basis, Argentina had five presidents in as many days. In the 2003 elections, Kirchner won 22% of the vote in the first round, trailing Carlos Menem, a deeply unpopular former chief executive attempting a comeback. When Menem withdrew rather than suffer an expected second-round shellacking, Kirchner became president.

Kirchner could have run for re-election, but he chose to step down and focus on party-building, while preserving the option to return to power after his wife serves four or eight years. Argentina's constitution limits presidents to two consecutive terms, but permits an unlimited number of non-consecutive terms. Some analysts, such as Fraga, believe the couple intend to govern for years.

More global interests than husband

If he does hand the presidency to his wife, the biggest change likely will be in Argentina's global image. In four years as president, Nestor Kirchner has paid little attention to international relations, even eschewing the diplomatic custom of receiving newly arrived ambassadors in Buenos Aires. His wife, who has traveled to the United States and Europe during the campaign, is described as far more attentive to foreign constituencies.

Cristina Kirchner has publicly predicted that Hillary Clinton, whom she last met in 2004 in Boston, will be the next U.S. president. Assuming she's correct, with new female leaders in Washington and Buenos Aires, there may be an opportunity for U.S.-Argentine relations to improve. Hopes here for better bilateral ties were fanned by a Clinton essay in the forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs, in which she says the U.S. should "deepen economic and strategic cooperation with Argentina."

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