By Jack Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) - Park Geun-hye, daughter of assassinated President Park Chung-hee, is by far the most popular choice to be the next leader of Asia's fourth largest economy, according to a poll published on Friday.
She stepped into the role of first lady after her mother was killed by a bullet intended for her father in 1974, five years before he himself was assassinated by a disgruntled aide.
Park, 59 and who led the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) when it was in opposition, is seen as a policy conservative, favoring regulatory reform and tax cuts, a strong alliance with the United States and more engagement with North Korea.
She had 42 percent support in a poll of 1,000 respondents by the conservative Chosun Ilbo daily newspaper. In distant second place was a liberal former lawmaker with just 9 percent.
Her closest rival in the conservative camp was the mayor of the capital Seoul with 6 percent.
South Korea elects a new parliament and president next year.
Park is one of the few South Koreans to have met the North's leader Kim Jong-il, whom she described as straight forward and comfortable to talk to and someone she believed would try to keep his word if the conditions were right.
She lost a bitterly fought primary in 2007 to the current President Lee Myung-bak and remains a rival. Lee is barred from a second term under the constitution, which was amended in 1987 to prevent the kind of bloody political upheaval caused by attempts by military men like her father to hold power.
Park has advocated tax cuts across the board and a small but effective government. She has feuded with Lee over the years over his attempt to pull the plug on his predecessor's plan to move the administrative capital to a region south of Seoul.
During the last campaign for the presidential Blue House, Park called for a cap on individual income tax and a corporate tax cut, a campaign pledge that appealed more to the conservative and older voters that are the support base of her party and her hometown of southeast.
Political analyst Choi Jin of the Institute for Presidential Leadership said Park's popularity is based on the perception that she represents a more trustworthy and unwavering leadership than Lee or his predecessors.
"The field is such that the rest of the candidates will be hard-pressed to catch up," Choi said.
The poll showed Park had strong support across the country, including in the swing-vote central region and even in the traditional liberal stronghold of the southwest. Her support was the weakest among voters in the 20s and 30s, but she still led.
Slender and youthful looking, Park has never married. Little is known about her private life except she lives by herself in Seoul.
(Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Jonathan Thatcher)