PUERTO AISEN, Chile — The candidate faced the hard women of this rugged Patagonian town. They were angry about the fate of their sons and husbands, a dozen lost in recent years to drownings, suicides, street crime.
The women feared a murderous conspiracy -- and blamed the government for not doing enough to get to the bottom of it.
Michelle Bachelet, a product of the country's political elite in the far-off capital, listened to their pleas in a cramped church office here. She took notes and vowed to look into it. She promised no solutions, but that didn't matter to the widows and mothers.
"Finally, someone seems to care about us," said Rosa Flores, leader of the mothers group. "I think she will help."
As Chileans go to the polls today to elect a new president, the scene that unfolded in this salmon-fishing outpost says much about the allure of Michelle Bachelet.
The blond pediatrician with signature spectacles and seemingly boundless energy is the favorite to win what is expected to be the first round of the election.
But she might not seem like the obvious front-runner to lead this South American nation.
She is a woman on a continent where governments have long been dominated by men.
She is a mother of three, separated from her husband in a conservative country that legalized divorce only a year ago.
She is the daughter of an air force general loyal to left-wing President Salvador Allende, who was overthrown by Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1973. Her father was arrested and tortured, and died of a heart attack in custody. She too was imprisoned by Pinochet's regime before fleeing into exile in East Germany.
With Bachelet's prospective ascension to the presidency, it seems easy enough to declare that Chilean politics has finally come full circle. The 90-year-old Pinochet, said to be suffering from dementia, faces charges of human rights abuses and corruption and is fighting to stay out of jail.
Meanwhile, outside the stately presidential palace that was bombed by Pinochet's supporters on Sept. 11, 1973, a statue of Allende now greets passersby. "I have faith in Chile and its destiny," reads the inscription, among Allende's last words before his death on that convulsive day.
But many on the left assail Bachelet and the left-wing coalition she represents as sellouts, politicians who have proved to be just as fiscally conservative, and pro-Washington, as Pinochet. Chile has become an economic powerhouse of the 21st century, but for all its fiscal progress, it still has one of the continent's largest gulfs between rich and poor.
"The politics of Michelle Bachelet has nothing to do with the politics of Salvador Allende," said Francisco "Pancho" Villa, a popular singer who is running for Congress on a left-wing ticket. "She and the others have betrayed the beliefs of Salvador Allende."
Bachelet, 54, is not an ideologue. She is widely considered to be an intelligent, tireless worker who conveys an overwhelming sense of purpose and is careful to master whatever issue confronts her.
But there is something else: an ability to touch people and transcend technocratic barriers -- a Bill Clinton-like capacity to appear to feel people's pain, if you will.
"Many people seem to see Michelle Bachelet as someone who is truly concerned about bringing about a better quality of life for them," said Carlos Montes, a congressman in Bachelet's Socialist Party and a top campaign aide. "It's not necessarily that she can help them earn more money or buy property, but that she understands their aspirations for a better life."
Most polls indicate that Bachelet will get 40% or more of the votes today, falling short of a majority. That would force a runoff next month with her closest rival, probably one of two conservatives: Joaquin Lavin, a former mayor of Santiago who narrowly lost the last election, in 2000; and Sebastian Pinera, a billionaire entrepreneur who has been rising in the polls and sounding almost like a socialist, vowing to fight persistent poverty.
Bachelet is the hand-picked candidate and protege of President Ricardo Lagos, who remains popular here but is prohibited by law from seeking reelection. She would be the fourth president of the so-called Concertacion -- the left-wing coalition that has dominated Chilean politics since the return of democracy in 1990.
The moderate governments of the Concertacion have reshaped the country into "Chile Inc." This is a country where investors, bankers and businesspeople have gotten along famously with a government full of socialists. Most expect that Bachelet would continue the trend.
"You hear some people say that Bachelet is really more of a leftist at heart than she lets on and will act more radically once she becomes president," said one Western diplomat working in the region. "But I don't believe that.
"The Chileans have figured something out: You can have your socialist agenda but you also have to be able to get along with the business community. That was an important lesson."