Thousands of Argentines filed past the coffin of former leader Nestor Kirchner on Thursday, honoring a man whose unexpected death leaves his widow, President Cristina Fernandez, alone to face a re-election fight and push their leftist political program.
Presidents from Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia and Ecuador stood with Fernandez, who wore sunglasses and sometimes rested her hands on the casket holding her husband's body lying in state at the presidential palace. Her son and daughter also offered comfort as did soccer legend Diego Maradona.
"Argentina lost a gladiator," Maradona said. "A man who always fought, who dug us out of a hole and was respectable in all things."
Bolivia's socialist leader, Evo Morales, also grieved the death. "Losing him leaves us as orphans."
Kirchner's death from a heart attack at age 60 leaves Fernandez without her closest adviser and political ally as she now must ponder whether to see re-election next year.
Many people had expected her to step aside next year for her husband, who was her predecessor in the presidency _ a job that won him popularity for guiding Argentina out of a deep economic crisis.
She and her husband also won support by pressing for prosecutions of human rights abuses during Argentina's military dictatorship and its "dirty war" against dissidents.
But while Fernandez is a powerful figure in her own right, it was Kirchner who Argentines consider the heir to Gen. Juan Domingo Peron, the legendary strongman whose advocacy for workers brought generations of Argentines into the middle class.
Also like Peron, Kirchner tolerated few challenges while governing, keeping in check labor unions, activist groups, governors and mayors. Fernandez, working closely with her husband, followed a similar path during her presidency, battling with various sectors over financial policy, limits on farm exports and other issues.
Kirchner's admirers who filled the Plaza de Mayo waiting patiently in line to pay respects said they are confident Fernandez can carry on his legacy.
The president "has the capacity to go it alone with all the people's support," said Juan Pablo Mazzieri, 39.
The Kirchner tandem has jettisoned free-market policies begun by their predecessors in the final decade of the 20th century, calling for a greater state role in the economy.
When Kirchner took office in May 2003, Argentina was struggling with double-digit unemployment and more than half its people were considered to be poor as the country defaulted on its foreign debt.
Kirchner, who had won office with only 22 percent of the votes, pushed through controls of currency exchanges and the flow of imports and exports. He reinstated government ownership of utilities that had been privatized in the 1990s, launched public works programs and provided credit to encourage consumption.
Argentina's economy rebounded, with Kirchner and his wife citing their populist policies as the reason. Their opponents dispute that, saying growth in the global economy at the time played a key role.
Fernandez has continued her husband's foreign policies, an approach that weakened the influence of the International Monetary Fund on Argentina's economy and pulled away from the United States while building stronger ties with other Latin American nations. Some of those strongest relations are with Venezuela's socialist leader, Hugo Chavez.
The close ties with Chavez have brought criticism from some segments, as has the Kirchners' failure to meet his 2003 campaign promise to reform Argentina's political system. Critics say little has changed from the old patronage practices that have long characterized the Peronist movement.
Kirchner's admirers say there is still a long way to go to reach the social equality promised by him and his wife.
In his final interview, Kirchner told the newspaper Pagina 12 last January that he was satisfied with what he has done and how he did it.
"All that I tried to do and I decided, I did," he said.