"I am a woman, a socialist, separated and agnostic -- all the sins [put] together," said Chilean presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet with a laugh.
Then, asked about her favorite food, she beamed with her trademark smile: "Ahhh! That is my problem, I like everything, seafood, pastas, beans ... "
Whether joking about being a political outsider or being overweight, this 54-year-old mother of three has become the darling of Chilean politics. Her perceived humor and honesty have catapulted her to the top of the ratings, and she is a clear favorite to win tomorrow's presidential elections.
A poll released on Thursday shows Bachelet with a 53 percent share of the vote -- a five-point lead over her opponent, billionaire businessman Sebastian Pinera.
If elected, Bachelet, a pediatrician who was tortured and lost her father under the Pinochet regime, will become the first woman elected president of a South American nation.
"She is going to take the reins of this country as if it were a big house. She is going to manage us well," said Juan Angel Gaete, a real estate broker in Santiago who said only a woman was capable of solving Chile's problems.
"Look at us men, we do one thing at a time, while the mom is cooking, talking on the phone, feeding the children and listening to the radio," he said.
For a single mother, with little money and no famous last name, Bachelet's rise to power has been remarkable. Chilean politics are as traditional as the rest of this conservative Catholic nation.
Never before has a woman been considered a serious candidate.
At first sight Bachelet, a fluent English speaker who has both lived and worked in the US, looks like a friendly schoolteacher. She often drives her own car, uses no bodyguards and refuses to attack her political opponents.
This non-confrontational style has been criticized as superficial, yet Chileans consistently rank her as the most honest and capable politician in the nation.
This week Segolene Royal, the French socialist politician, flew to Chile to support her campaign. For the campaign finale on Thursday, Spanish singers including Miguel Bose sponsored a free concert for an estimated 100,000 Bachelet supporters in downtown Santiago.
A sense of spontaneity and distance from traditional politics has provided Bachelet with an extremely loyal base of supporters.
"I lived the dictatorship and have very bad memories of Pinochet, I am afraid of the rightwing parties," said Ricardo Yanez, 46, a school teacher. "With Bachelet, I share her values."
While leftwing governments across the continent, notably Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and incoming Bolivian President Evo Morales, are questioning the free-market model, Bachelet is expected to maintain Chile's wide open economy.
Ricardo Lagos, the current charismatic leader, has presided over an economic boom that has seen the economy growing at 5 percent and exports doubling in less than three years. It has made Chile a model of stability in the otherwise tumultuous region.
In addition to the economic success, Lagos has showcased Chilean leadership, particularly in his refusal to bow to pressure from US President George Bush to support the war in Iraq.
A member of the socialist party, Bachelet has focused her campaign promises on pre-school education, the rights of working mothers and enforcing Chile's lax labor laws.
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