First lady takes centre stage in Argentina race

LA PLATA, Argentina Fri Jul 20, 2007 2:06am BST

Argentina's First Lady Senator Crisitina Fernandez de Kirchner waves to well-wishers in front of her husband Argentine President Nestor Kirchner in this file photo taken in Buenos Aires in this May 22, 2007 file photo. Kirchner is the overwhelming favourite to win October's presidential election, but a series of corruption scandals and an energy crisis dogging President Nestor Kirchner could affect her campaign. REUTERS/Handout-Presidency

Argentina's First Lady Senator Crisitina Fernandez de Kirchner waves to well-wishers in front of her husband Argentine President Nestor Kirchner in this file photo taken in Buenos Aires in this May 22, 2007 file photo. Kirchner is the overwhelming favourite to win October's presidential election, but a series of corruption scandals and an energy crisis dogging President Nestor Kirchner could affect her campaign.

Credit: Reuters/Handout-Presidency

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LA PLATA, Argentina (Reuters) - Argentina's first lady launched her campaign to become the country's first elected female president on Thursday, pledging to deepen the economic course carved out by President Nestor Kirchner.

Polls show Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, a powerful senator and her husband's top adviser, is the overwhelming favourite to win an October presidential election.

But a series of corruption scandals and an energy crisis dogging her husband could affect her campaign.

Fernandez unveiled her presidential bid in this provincial capital more than two weeks after Kirchner said he would not seek re-election and instead back his wife as the ruling Peronist Party's candidate.

Kirchner, who remains highly popular after four years in office, describes his wife's candidacy as a chance for change and new ideas.

Addressing a packed theatre of supporters, Fernandez heralded her husband's economic policies. Many Argentines credit Kirchner with engineering the country's turnaround from a 2001-2002 economic crisis.

"Argentina has new hopes, so there is now a need to keep carrying this model forward," she said.

A 54-year-old lawyer who has served in both houses of Congress, Fernandez is among several wives of Peronist presidents to enter politics, beginning with Eva Peron, the wife of former Argentine strongman Juan Peron.

If she wins, Fernandez would become the first woman elected president of Argentina but not the first to run the country.

Isabel Peron, the leader's third wife, took over as president after he died in 1974 but was ousted by a military coup two years later.

Fernandez rolled out her campaign as Kirchner suffered a string of recent political setbacks, including the resignation this week of his economy minister, who was under investigation after a bag of cash was found stashed in her office bathroom.

That followed several probes and resignations by mid-level officials linked to alleged corruption in a multimillion-dollar government pipeline project.

Energy shortages have forced the government to ration supplies to businesses, and two losses in recent provincial and municipal elections have also hit the government.

Fernandez's "biggest opponent isn't the opposition, but the recent errors of the government," said Sergio Berensztein, an analyst with polling group Poliarquia.

Public opinion surveys show she is likely to win in a first round of balloting with around 45 percent support. She holds a 30 percentage point lead over her closest rival.

Fernandez travels to Spain this weekend to promote her candidacy abroad.

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