Elisa Carrió isn't your average Argentine politician. Instead of blaming foreigners for her country's economic misery, she is winning public support by asking Argentines to accept responsibility for supporting policies that were doomed to failure.
That is a good measure of how low the once-proud country has sunk. The peso is worth a quarter of what it was a year ago, Argentina is in default on more than $141 billion of government debt, savings accounts are frozen and children are going hungry in the countryside of a nation that once was a breadbasket.
A chain-smoking, twice-divorced anti-corruption crusader known as ''Lilita'' to her followers, Carrió could be elected Argentina's next president, an indication that the country may be ready to change its usual diet of denial, self-delusion and machismo.
She garnered huge media attention after caretaker President Eduardo Duhalde's surprise announcement July 2 that the presidential election will be moved up to March 2003. As a result, she skyrocketed from gadfly to presumed presidential front-runner, although no national polls are available yet.
Interviewed in a simple rented apartment in Buenos Aires, filled with statues of the Virgin Mary, Carrió exudes the confidence of someone who believes her time has come. Hearing a question that started with ''if'' she were elected, she interrupted to insist, ``I will be president.''
A burly, straight-talking woman from the rural Chaco province, ''Lilita'' has little patience for formality. She is the exact opposite of Argentina's other famous female politician, the rags-to-riches Evita Peron, who dazzled with glamour.
Carrió, 45, obtained a law degree at 21, was a judge by 26, co-founded her political party, Alternative for a Republic of Equals, and has been a crusading congresswoman since 1995. She is a single mother, with children ages 7, 11 and 28.
She insists she is neither anti-American nor anti-capitalism. But she does blame U.S. foreign policy for leading to and deepening Argentina's collapse. She complains that Washington did nothing as Argentina replaced government monopolies with private ones, instead of with free and open markets.
She plans to be elected without accepting a peso from big business or running slick television advertising campaigns.
''We will compete in unequal conditions. We have prohibited business contributions to our political campaigns. . . . We will not have a publicity campaign; there will be nothing of what is traditional in this country's presidential campaigns and because of that we will win,'' she said defiantly. ``People are sick of the well-heeled, programmed candidates.''
Can she pull it off? Prominent political analyst Rosendo Fraga thinks she can.
'Elisa Carrió has what is needed to win the next presidential elections . . . because she represents the value of `utopia' in this moment of abandonment and social frustration, leaving the central question for later of whether she can govern,'' Fraga said.
Carrió is one of the only politicians in Argentina who can walk the streets without being heckled or physically attacked by citizens who are angry about the country's miserable state.
Everything points to a race between Carrió and former President Carlos S. Menem, who left office in 1999 and whom many Argentines blame for the country's worst-ever political and economic crisis. Menem vows to restore close ties with the United States and to adopt the dollar as Argentina's currency, something Carrió ridicules and that Anne Krueger, the vice director of the International Monetary Fund, emphatically rejected Wednesday.
Carrió sees the race against Menem as one of good vs. evil. And she said she is ready to lead a country in crisis.
''Being the person with the most public legitimacy for many years in this country, I have to assume this responsibility. It's like I am pregnant with this responsibility to the public,'' Carrió said.
Carrió earned her crusader reputation when her congressional panel unearthed corporate fraud in privatization programs like those the United States backed throughout the region.
She now seems visionary in light of the corporate scandals in the United States.
In February 2001, Carrió testified before the U.S. Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations about money laundering in Argentina. U.S. banking behemoth Citibank later apologized for a lack of internal controls on money laundering, and it was proved as a result of Carrió's probing that IBM paid hundreds of bribes to Argentine government officials to win a lucrative contract to supply computers to the country's school system.