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In Argentina, leaders' wives evoke Evita

Icon's legacy factor in Senate contest

BUENOS AIRES -- If Eva Peron could speak, she would undoubtedly be asked for an endorsement.

The wives of the last two Argentine presidents are competing for a seat in the Senate. The race has split the Peronist party, which dominates politics more than a half-century after Evita helped her husband, President Juan Peron, define it.

On July 26, the two candidates held their first campaign appearances: Each attended separate memorial services marking the 53d anniversary of Evita's death. Both women, Cristina Fernandez Kirchner and Hilda Gonzalez Duhalde, delivered fiery speeches in crowded gymnasiums, drawing parallels between themselves and the legend whose picture graced both stages.

Gonzalez Duhalde, 59, the wife of former President Eduardo Duhalde, summoned the legacy of Evita while accusing her opponent of dwelling in the past.

''Today we need to follow the example of this wonderful woman, Evita, and move the country forward," said Gonzalez Duhalde, who said Fernandez Kirchner had focused too much attention on rights abuses committed by the military governments of the 1970s and early 1980s.

A few minutes later and several miles away, Evita was resurrected again. Her image, however, looked completely different.

''Where do you imagine Evita would be standing today?" asked Fernandez Kirchner, 52, as her husband, President Nestor Kirchner, watched from a seat beside the stage.

''Would she be asking you not to look back to the past, or would she be standing alongside the mothers and grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo?"

She was referring to activist relatives of those who disappeared during the military dictatorship.

The rhetorical question -- ''What would Evita do?" -- seems to be the unofficial campaign slogan for both sides.

Among the emotional memorial notices that appeared in Buenos Aires newspapers on the anniversary of Evita's death, one addressed her directly: ''If you had lived, you would not have been a Kirchner supporter."

The candidates represent opposing sides of a power struggle that was started by their husbands, both of whom are members of the Peronist party.

The province of Buenos Aires for years has been the stronghold of Duhalde, the former president. He backed Kirchner in the 2003 election, but the two have bitterly disagreed over economic policy. Their battle to control the party now hinges on their spouses' campaigns.

After Gonzalez Duhalde was designated the official Peronist candidate for the Senate seat representing the province of Buenos Aires, Fernandez Kirchner entered the race representing a new party called the Peronist Victory Front. Numerous candidates in provinces have since sided with one faction or the other.

The Kirchners, who identify themselves as ''center-left," have suggested that specific labels are needed to help voters distinguish candidates under the broad umbrella of Peronism. However, the split personified by the first ladies is more personal than ideological, analysts say.

For politicians outside the Peronist party, the split is not the opportunity it might seem. Ricardo Lopez Murphy, who heads an opposition party and who is running for the same Senate seat as Fernandez Kirchner and Gonzalez Duhalde, told reporters last week that he believes the Peronist party simply wants to flood the ballot with its own people.

According to national election rules, the victorious party chooses two of the three seats representing the province in the Argentine Senate; the second-place party chooses the third. That means Peronists could fill all three seats.

''The society of Buenos Aires must liberate itself from its esposas," Murphy said, making a pun with a word that can mean either ''handcuffs" or ''wives."

''Obviously we will pay the price," he said, ''and the ruling party will achieve what they have always sought: the elimination of minority parties."

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