By Marianna Parraga
CARACAS (Reuters) - A tough lawyer who helped win Hugo Chavez's release from prison after a failed coup two decades ago, Venezuela's former attorney general Cilia Flores has since never been far from the circle of power around the late socialist leader.
If her partner, acting President Nicolas Maduro, wins an April 14 election to replace Chavez after his death from cancer, the 60-year-old Flores will become even more influential.
"She has a fiery character. What you saw of her in parliament, that's exactly what she is like at home," Maduro told one rally.
"But I always have the last word, when I say 'You're right my dear!'" he joked, presenting Flores to the crowd as a leading member of his campaign team.
A law graduate from the private Santa Maria university in Caracas, Flores first shot to attention in 1994 when she helped secure the release of Chavez from prison. He had been sent there after leading a failed coup attempt two years earlier.
Four years after his release, Flores helped the charismatic but divisive former soldier win power in a presidential election. She has since become the most powerful woman in Venezuelan politics.
After serving as a loyal "Chavista" lawmaker in the National Assembly, in 2006 she became the first woman elected as president of the legislature - taking over the role from Maduro.
Between 2005 and 2010, dissident lawmakers boycotted the Assembly, partly in protest at pressure from the government for them to join Chavez's Socialist Party.
Opposition candidates stood again at parliamentary elections in 2010 that gave them 40 percent of the seats.
That ballot was widely seen as a protest vote by Venezuelans who accused lawmakers of neglecting grassroots problems such as crime, inflation and problems with public services.
At this testing time for the Socialist Party, Flores moved from the president's chair back to the floor of the house where she was a central figure in enforcing discipline in the ranks.
In 2012, she was named by Chavez as attorney general. And during the last weeks of his illness, she staunchly backed up the government at key moments - defending it against opposition accusations that there was a power vacuum while the president fought to recover from his fourth and final cancer operation.
"She has been an excellent official who completed the president's instructions to the letter," said a senior National Assembly official who worked closely with Flores.
"She will be Maduro's 'strong arm'. She has authority, the ability to command, and she is a woman who moves quietly."
'I'LL DEFEND MY FAMILY'
Flores' strong character is well known in the legislature, where critics accused her of using her influence to secure jobs for dozens of close associates and relatives. They included four brothers, two nephews, two cousins and her ex-husband, who is the father of her son and daughter.
She hit back at any allegations of impropriety.
"I feel proud that they are my family and I will defend them as workers in the Assembly," she said at the time, accusing journalists who published the claims of trying to blackmail her.
She also showed her determination in leading a drive to allow only state media cameras to cover debates in the Assembly after opposition lawmakers returned to the chamber in 2011.
"Out of order, deputy!" she once said to a former colleague while switching off his microphone as he complained that the government was not addressing the daily problems of voters.
In recent weeks, Flores has left behind the elegant outfits she favored as a senior official to put on her campaign boots - dressing down in jeans and casual wear to join the often track suit-clad Maduro at chaotic, dusty rallies in provincial cities.
Joining Maduro at his public events, she has sometimes had her hair dyed red, under a baseball cap in the colors of the Venezuelan flag and bearing the legend "4F" - referring to February 4, 1992, the date of Chavez's failed coup attempt.
"The far-right believes the commander-president lost his battle for health," she told one recent rally. "We tell them: you've got it wrong again ... The president didn't die, he multiplied, he became immortal, and here he is, millions-strong!"
While never shy to strike out at critics, the experienced Flores is seen as a calm operator. Some colleagues attribute that to her being a follower of the late Indian spiritual guru Sai Baba, whom she and Maduro visited in India in 2005.
Thrusting her into the spotlight during the campaign, Maduro has recounted her life story growing up in a mud-floored home in rural Cojedes state, and then the poor "barrio" of Catia in western Caracas, before going on to give her services to Chavez's self-styled revolution.
Maduro often talks about how Flores' family were harassed by the police back then because of her unconditional support for Chavez. It remains unclear exactly what role Flores will play if Maduro wins the vote and continues Chavez's leftist project.
It is also not known whether she would push for moderate policies, or take a more radical line. Like Maduro and many top officials, her fierce loyalty to Chavez precluded offering any different opinions when he was president.
When they first met, Maduro joked recently, during those "years of struggle" as she fought to free Chavez from prison, the feisty lawyer broke the ice by winking at him.
They have been a Chavista "power couple" since then, although they are not believed to be married. Flores could be appointed to a ministry or another influential position, perhaps - given her legal background - president of the Supreme Court.
In any case, a Maduro election win would cement her position as the most powerful woman in Venezuelan politics.
"I've told her she is not going to be First Lady," Maduro said recently, adding that official ranks meant nothing to them.
"I've told her to get ready to be the First Fighter of the fatherland, the First Socialist, the first woman of the people of the barrios, of the streets," he added, giving her a kiss.
(Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Kieran Murray and Philip Barbara)