First lady the favorite as Argentines vote

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BUENOS AIRES, Oct 28 (Reuters) Argentines appeared certain to choose their first elected female president today, with first lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner favored to win by a wide margin over her closest rival, another woman.

Many Argentines credit Fernandez's husband, center-left President Nestor Kirchner, with pulling the country out of a deep 2001-02 economic crisis Pre-election polls showed Fernandez, a powerful senator, leading 13 rivals and likely to take over from her husband in a highly unusual transfer of power between spouses.

Television channels said electoral authorities decided to keep polling stations in the capital open an extra hour, until 330 IST, due to long lines.

Fernandez backers say the economy's turnaround -- marked by millions of new jobs and moves by Kirchner to raise salaries and pensions -- drove their voting choice.

''There are more jobs now. Things have calmed down. People aren't dying to leave the country,'' said Sergio Arrigoni, 41, a delivery truck driver recalling the hundreds of thousands of Argentines who fled the country at the height of the crisis.

Fernandez has been Kirchner's top advisor during his four-year presidency. Voters tired of boom-and-bust cycles hope she will sustain the bonanza he has overseen.

A 54-year-old lawyer, Fernandez would avoid a runoff election by winning at least 45 percent of the votes, or more than 40 per cent with a 10 percentage point lead over her nearest rival.

Her closest challenger is anti-corruption crusader and former lawmaker Elisa Carrio, who trails by 20 points.

Carlos Servini, a 38-year-old taxi driver who lives in one of the vast working class neighborhoods outside the capital, said he was casting his vote for Fernandez.

''I have faith in her. If she wins I think she'll build a good government on the foundations put in place by her husband,'' he said.

Voters like Servini from Buenos Aires province, which surrounds the capital city of the same name, are essential to the projected Fernandez victory. The strongly pro-Kirchner province is home to about 38 percent of voters.

Argentines were also electing eight governors, about half of the lower house of Congress and a third of the country's senators.

INFLATION, ENERGY CONCERNS Fernandez kissed supporters on the cheek after voting in a school in Kirchner's hometown of Rio Gallegos in southern Patagonia. She hailed Sunday's vote as ''an important day for the continuation of democracy.'' ''I'm part of the generation that grew up and couldn't vote for anything,'' she said, referring to Argentina's 1976-83 military dictatorship.

A Fernandez victory would make her the second woman elected president in a Latin America country in the last two years, coming after Chile's Michelle Bachelet won office.

It would also continue the trend of leftist leadership in South America. But while Fernandez is expected to stay friendly with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, she, like her husband, is more moderate than the firebrand socialist.

Her campaign has seemed effortless. Handpicked by her husband and chosen by a faction of the Peronist party without a primary, Fernandez avoided debates and was vague on policy.

Polls showed middle- and upper-class voters in big cities were not convinced by Fernandez, possibly due to her failure to confront some of Argentina's economic challenges head on.

Despite the booming expansion, economists say Fernandez faces tough issues next year including rising consumer prices and a looming energy shortage.

Rivals have criticized the Kirchners as being authoritarian and treating the election as the beginning of a political dynasty to tighten their grip on the presidency and Congress.

''I'd like to see a runoff,'' said Antonio Bruno, who is 67 and unemployed and was voting in the capital. ''If there isn't one, then the Kirchners are going to dominate everything.'' REUTERS SZ PM0306

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