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THE WORLD

First lady may have eye on husband's job

Stylish Argentine senator is being called the 'new Evita.'

February 18, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — She is a senator and the chief advisor to her husband, who is no less than the president of Argentina. Some call her the real power in the presidential palace.

She is certainly more stylish than he is, sporting a Jackie Kennedy-like designer collection and a shoe closet rivaling that of Imelda Marcos.

And the heated rumor mill here suggests she wants his job.

"This is the century of the woman," Sen. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Argentina's first lady, commented in a much-celebrated encounter in Paris this month with Segolene Royal, the French Socialist vying to become France's first female president.

The first lady's French soiree has ignited a sizzling new round of speculation about Fernandez's long-presumed presidential aspirations.

The "new Evita" label appears destined to stick, even if comparisons seem to be a stretch in the case of this lawyer from a middle-class background and the up-from-the-streets Eva Peron, who died seven months before Fernandez was born. Both are first ladies and both nominally "Peronists," though what Argentina's dominant political movement even means today is a matter of debate.

Her husband, President Nestor Kirchner, has not officially decided whether to seek reelection this fall. He has played it coy, saying his party's candidate would be a male or female pinguino -- a reference to the chilly Patagonian expanses, and penguin habitat, where the couple launched their political careers.

"This isn't the time to talk about the candidacy," Kirchner said recently, even though the election is less than nine months away and at least three opposition candidates, including Kirchner's former economy minister, Roberto Lavagna, have declared their intentions.

Kirchner, known for his left-wing, tough-guy talk, has been variously reported to be ailing or tiring of the nation's top job, and perhaps eager to yield to his strong-willed wife and avoid the pitfalls of a second term.

He would step down in good standing -- Kirchner is widely credited with guiding Argentina's steady recovery from the economic collapse of 2001-02 -- and perhaps even be in a position to run again in 2011. Some foresee a scenario in which he and his wife, who turns 54 on Monday, could alternate in power for the next 12 years, or at least try to.

"He would be the first president to leave office with a positive image since the return of democracy" in 1983, noted Carlos Fara, a political analyst here. "If the electoral calculus doesn't change drastically, there is a great probability that Cristina will be the candidate."

Comparisons have arisen to another power couple who met in law school and burst from the boondocks to national prominence: Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Fernandez, dubbed Reina (Queen) Cristina in a recent, fawning biography, is known to admire Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. But the parallel may be unfair to Fernandez, who enjoyed a reputation as an outspoken lawmaker in the capital for years while her husband, the former governor of southern Santa Cruz province, was a virtual unknown here.

'Awful candidate'

In Congress, Fernandez's televised lectures against corruption and other perceived shortcomings earned her a mixed reputation: maverick lawmaker to her supporters, publicity-grabbing harridan to her detractors.

"She comes off as very strident and bossy," said James Neilson, columnist for the Noticias newsweekly, citing traits often attributed to her husband as well. "She'd be an awful candidate."

Early polling indicates she would garner 10 fewer percentage points in a general presidential election than her husband, probably ensuring a runoff against an opposition contender -- a dicey proposition.

Others dispute Fernandez's supposed electoral vulnerability, noting her sweeping defeat of a rival Peronist to win a Senate seat from Buenos Aires province in 2005.

Her admirers portray Fernandez -- with her flowing hair, infectious smile and rousing speaking style, complete with Evita cadences -- as something special: a magnetic force ready to scale the final ramparts of macho governance here.

Fernandez would bring style to the job, her advocates say. "Cristina will win by 30 points," Kirchner's interior minister, Anibal Fernandez, gushed to the daily Clarin newspaper.

She will decide

Well, will she or won't she? She's not saying, but she is making one thing clear: She will make the call, not her husband. (Though no one really believes this.) "I decide about myself," she told reporters in Paris.

Fernandez was ostensibly in the City of Light to represent Argentina at the signing of a new international treaty banning the sinister "disappearances" that plagued her homeland under the 1976-83 military dictatorship. Critics assailed the Paris trip as a campaign junket and a cynical device to burnish Fernandez's thin international credentials at the taxpayers' expense.

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