By Helen Popper
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentine President Cristina Fernandez is betting her future on a pro-government youth movement founded by her son, challenging old allegiances inside the ruling Peronist party as she seeks re-election.
Fernandez, a center-leftist who polls suggest could easily win a second term on October 23 on the back of sizzling economic growth, has peppered ruling party electoral slates with members of the ultra-loyal La Campora group.
La Campora's rapid ascent has unsettled some of her traditional Peronist party allies such as trade union leaders and the mayors who control the vote-winning machinery in the densely populated outskirts of the capital, Buenos Aires.
It is often said in Argentina that it is hard to win power and even harder to keep it without the backing of the Peronist party bigwigs. Fernandez's late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, who died nine months ago, made that his political mantra during his 2003-2007 presidency.
But, emboldened by approval ratings above 50 percent, Fernandez seems determined to put her own stamp on the power base she inherited from her husband, even if it risks union unrest at a time when high inflation is stoking wage demands.
"They're building their own political party," said Ricardo Sidicaro, a sociologist at Argentina's CONICET research center. "There's no doubt there's been an irreparable split with the unions ... (and) a distancing from traditional Peronism that was a 'no go' for Kirchner."
After some mutterings of discontent over the electoral lists, trade unionists -- who wanted more political influence -- and other allies have played down tensions.
"When you've got 100 suitors chasing 10 women, 90 will end up getting annoyed," Hector Recalde, legal adviser to the country's CGT labor confederation, told local radio this week.
"We still support Cristina's re-election," said Recalde, whose son is a leader of La Campora.
The government has accused the mainstream media of stirring up the controversy over the ruling party slates.
"They're always talking about (the need for) political renovation ... and now there are young people on the lists, it's a disaster," said Economy Minister Amado Boudou, who is Fernandez's vice presidential candidate.
YOUTH AND LOYALTY
Boudou, a 48-year-old bachelor with a penchant for rock music, does not hail from the ranks of La Campora. But he shares the qualities Fernandez seems keen to promote -- a youthful image, a professional profile and absolute loyalty to the interventionist economic policies that infuriate many farmers and business leaders.
On walls and bus shelters in Buenos Aires, La Campora posters advertising neighborhood meetings and rallies mix retro images of Kirchner with the famous phrase attributed to former Chinese leader Mao Zedong: "Let a thousand flowers bloom."
Named after Hector Campora, a left-leaning Peronist who led the country briefly in 1973, the movement was founded by the Kirchners' son Maximo, 34, during his father's presidency, and several members have already clinched senior state roles.
Recalde's lawyer son, Mariano, heads nationalized airline Aerolineas Argentinas, and the government named La Campora economists to serve on the boards of leading companies.
The youth movement has gained attention since Kirchner died of a heart attack last October, when thousands of youngsters queued to catch a glimpse of his coffin.
Financial markets cheered Kirchner's death, hoping it would pave the way for a government more amenable to investor interests.
In the end, it boosted Fernandez's popularity and gave new life to the combative and unpredictable policy mix that strikes a chord with youngsters marked by the 2001-02 economic crisis that plunged millions of Argentines into poverty.
"(Kirchner's death) made us step things up a notch," said Juan Cabandie, 33, the ruling party's top legislative candidate for the capital's legislature and a key figure in La Campora.
"She's betting on this generation because it's the guarantee that this political project lasts for many decades," said Cabandie, whose face is spread across campaign posters in the capital ahead of Sunday's mayoral election.
When Fernandez finally ended months of speculation by announcing her candidacy last month, she said she wanted to be a "bridge between the new and old generations.
As well as ensuring backing in Congress in a likely second term, the plethora of committed young allies on electoral lists may be part of Fernandez's post-2015 succession strategy.
Argentina's constitution allows only two consecutive four-year terms as president, and analysts say that means Fernandez might soon face succession struggles if re-elected.
A few "Kirchneristas" hope Maximo Kirchner could become his parents' political heir, though he shuns the limelight.
Others expect more key roles to be given to young loyalists in a second Fernandez term, some mentioning the ANSES pensions agency chief Diego Bossio as a possible economy minister. Bossio, 31, does not belong to La Campora.
Surrounded by La Campora posters in his shop in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of San Telmo, group activist Enrique Aurelli said government recognition of the youth is reward enough.
"Nestor Kirchner is the nearest thing we've had to (former president Juan) Peron in my generation," he said. "It's a huge recognition that Cristina has turned to us."
(Editing by Kieran Murray)