LA PLATA, Argentina — In a country known for its power-sharing political couples, first lady Sen. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner made, and some say repeated, history, in this quiet provincial capital Thursday by announcing her bid for the presidency.
The 54-year-old lawyer said she would build on the accomplishments of her husband, President Nestor Kirchner, who had revived the country after a crippling 2001-02 economic crisis. He listened from the audience along with much of his cabinet.
"We have rebuilt the democratic, constitutional state, the system of decision-making that applies the constitution to the three powers," she said in a forceful speech behind a backdrop that read "Change is Just Starting."
The long-anticipated announcement has captured the imaginations of Argentines, who still live with the mythology of former President Juan Peron and his wife Eva, who ruled and misruled this 40 million-person country during the 1940s and 1950s.
Like Eva Peron, Fernandez de Kirchner is closely tied to her husband, President Nestor Kirchner, in the public spotlight and has cultivated a glamorous image with designer clothes and impeccable makeup. They both belong to the Peronist Justicialist Party.
Yet those who know Fernandez de Kirchner said she arrived at this pivotal moment on her own merits and that her political rise reflected the growing power of Latin American women. Polls show that she is favored to win the Oct. 28 presidential vote in the first round of balloting.
"It would be an error for Cristina to identify with Eva," said Carlos Cottini, a former provincial legislator who was a classmate of the Kirchners in the early 1970s at the National University of La Plata's law school. "(Fernandez de Kirchner) is her own person."
The first lady has said publicly that she finds inspiration in Hillary Clinton and has called the U.S. presidential candidate "an intelligent and modern woman, who knew about constructing a place and an important image, not independent from her husband but coexisting with him."
Political analysts say Fernandez de Kirchner is similarly a close political partner to her husband, who took power in 2003 as the country struggled to recover from economic turmoil. The Argentine economy has since grown by an average of about 8 percent a year, with many Argentines crediting the president for the upturn.
The first lady referred to the crisis while condemning what she called the "industrialist," pro-market model that had doomed the country.
"Argentines have improved their quality of life," she said. "And to those who don't agree, I invite them to see how the people have returned to consuming."
Speaking at a public event Monday with his wife sitting a few feet away, Kirchner tried to share the glory with her. Polls show that the president would win by a wider margin than his wife if he were to run.
"With Cristina, my ever-present comrade, you know that as comrades we always worked together on our project of life and our political project," the 57-year-old president said.
At the beginnings of their careers, Fernandez de Kirchner had been the bigger star, having won a seat in the provincial legislature of the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz in 1989, while her husband was mayor of the province's capital.
The couple had moved to Santa Cruz, where Kirchner grew up, to escape persecution during Argentina's brutal 1976-83 military dictatorship. They had met in Fernandez de Kirchner's hometown of La Plata, where they were enrolled in law school and had been active in a local Peronist group.
"She was very capable, very committed to Peronist ideas," Cottini said, referring to the former president's mix of pro-labor, nationalistic rhetoric. "She was one of the more important students."
Kirchner became the governor of Santa Cruz in 1991, and his wife joined the national legislature in 1995. She was elected as senator of Buenos Aires province, the country's most populous, in 2005 after facing off against Sen. Hilda de Duhalde, the wife of another ex-president, Eduardo Duhalde.
In an interview with the Argentine newspaper La Nacion, Hilda de Duhalde said Fernandez de Kirchner lacked the executive experience to be president.
Criticism of the first lady was also heavy at the La Plata law school where she and the president had studied. "They are subtly installing a dictatorship," student Paula Canevello said of the presidential couple.
The first lady is part of a trend that's seen female politicians find good fortune across South America. Neighboring Chile is headed by President Michelle Bachelet, and Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte Frutos is touting his former education minister, Blanca Ovelar, as his replacement next year.
Fernandez de Kirchner will face at least four other candidates in October, including her husband's former economy minister Roberto Lavagna. She'd be Argentina's first elected female president.
By contrast, Juan Peron had always used Evita for his own political ends and famously refused to give in to popular demands that she be his vice presidential candidate in the 1951 vote, said Georgetown University law professor Joseph Page, who wrote an exhaustive biography of Peron.
Only during Peron's third term as president did he give his third wife, Isabel Martinez de Peron, the vice presidential slot. She became president after his death in 1974 but was toppled almost two years later by a military coup.
"Evita was given this important role to play by him, and he used her in a very effective way to do things he didn't want to do," Page said.
Some analysts suggest that Kirchner may be doing the same thing, by pushing his wife's candidacy while his star is waning.
His government has been scrambling to contain the political damage from energy shortages that have hit during this year's brutally cold winter and from Monday's resignation of Economy Minister Felisa Miceli amid accusations of corruption.
Others speculate that Kirchner plans to return to power in 2011 and alternate mandates with his wife. Argentine law prohibits presidents from serving more than two consecutive, four-year terms but lets them run again after sitting out an election.
James Neilson, a columnist for the Argentine newsmagazine Noticias, said rumored health problems might have to do with the president's decision not to run.
If elected, Fernandez de Kirchner probably would continue her husband's pro-growth policies, which have helped the country's economy recover but also have triggered high inflation. She's also expected to continue government price controls that many say have discouraged investment and caused shortages.
As a legislator, she upset many of her fellow Peronists by challenging former President Carlos Menem during the 1990s and, more recently, won praise for overseeing long-needed reforms to the country's Supreme Court. She's known as a brutally direct — some say abrasive — politician who's protective of her power.
Political analyst Carlos Fara said the first lady's administration would give Argentines what they wanted: a continuation of the current government, even as they appeared to be growing tired of the president.
"This is a candidacy that's already consecrated in public opinion," Fara said. "Argentines see her as the number two figure in the country, and this election will confirm that."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Sreeharsha reported from La Plata, Argentina. Chang reported from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. )