BUENOS AIRES -- It is not the best of times to be running for re-election in Argentina.
Unemployment is at an all-time high. Unpaid workers are staging violent protests in the provinces. Taxes have just gone up. The banking system is a mess. The military has confessed to killing and torturing dissidents during the 1970s. And fear remains that Argentina will be the next Latin American economy to crash, after Mexico's currency crisis.
But President Carlos Saul Menem, who led Argentina to record growth and low inflation since taking office in 1989, has a strong lead over his rival in the latest polls and is expected to avoid a runoff in elections scheduled for May 14.
Mr. Menem has remained popular despite Argentina's woes, which political experts say have helped him solidify his support among voters, many of whom are afraid to switch captains in mid-voyage.
"Mexico has been good for Menem because it reintroduced the fear factor into Argentine society," said Felipe A. Noguera, a political analyst. "Argentines were suddenly reminded what it was like to live under hyperinflation, and many are afraid to face the future without the man who tamed it."
Many political analysts are calling Mr. Menem the "Teflon gaucho," referring to his ability to retain popular support despite his often shifting and conflicting positions.
The latest polls give Mr. Menem 42 percent to 44 percent of the vote, not including projections for undecided voters, against 28 percent to 30 percent for Jose Octavio Bordon of the center-left coalition Frepaso and a percentage in the mid-teens for Horacio Massaccesi of the Radical Party.
Many political experts see similarities between Menem's popularity and that of Peruvian President Alberto K. Fujimori, who was elected in April to a second term with 64 percent of the vote, mainly because of his success in restructuring Peru's economy and crushing Shining Path terrorists.
Under Mr. Menem's economic changes, including privatizing state-owned businesses and lifting trade restrictions, Argentina's economy grew at roughly 7 percent a year for the last four years, and inflation dropped to less than 5 percent from more than 5,000 percent in 1989.
But Mr. Menem's "economic miracle" nearly fizzled in December when foreign investors, nervous over Mexico's devaluation, started pulling out of Argentina and Argentines emptied their bank accounts, creating chaos in the financial markets and a credit crisis.
Mr. Menem's economic advisers, led by Finance Minister Domingo Cavallo, have managed to avoid fiscal disaster, which many economists believe is imminent, by raising taxes, controlling state expenditures, and obtaining billions of dollars in international loans.