If Eva Peron could speak, she'd undoubtedly be asked for an endorsement.

Two of Argentina's first ladies -- the current one and her immediate predecessor -- are competing for a seat in the Senate. The race has split the Peronist party, which still dominates Argentine politics more than a half-century after "Evita" helped her husband, President Juan Peron, define it.

On Tuesday night, the two candidates held their first simultaneous campaign appearances: Each attended separate memorial services marking the 53rd anniversary of Evita's death. Both women -- Cristina Fernandez Kirchner and Hilda Gonzalez Duhalde -- delivered fiery speeches in crowded gymnasiums, drawing parallels between themselves and the legend whose picture graced both stages.

Gonzalez Duhalde, 59, the wife of former president Eduardo Duhalde, summoned the legacy of Evita while criticizing her opponent for dwelling in the past.

"Today we need to follow the example of this wonderful woman, Evita, and move the country forward," said Gonzalez Duhalde, attacking Fernandez Kirchner for focusing too much attention on human rights abuses committed by the military governments of the 1970s.

A few minutes later and several miles away, Evita was resurrected once again, though her image looked completely different.

"Where do you imagine Evita would be standing today?" asked Fernandez Kirchner, 52, as her husband, President Nestor Kirchner, watched from a seat beside the stage. "Would she be asking you not to look back to the past, or would she be standing alongside the mothers and grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo?" referring to activist relatives of those who disappeared during the military dictatorship.

The rhetorical question -- "What would Evita do?" -- seems the unofficial campaign slogan for both sides. Among the emotional memorial notices that appeared in Buenos Aires newspapers on the anniversary of Evita's death, one addressed her directly: "If you had lived, you would not have been a Kirchner supporter."

The candidates represent opposing sides of a power struggle that was started by their husbands, both of whom are members of the Peronist party. The province of Buenos Aires for years has been the stronghold of former president Duhalde. He backed Kirchner in the 2003 election, but the two have bitterly disagreed over economic policy in the past year, and their battle to control the party now hinges on their spouses' campaigns.

After Gonzalez Duhalde was designated the official Peronist candidate for the Senate seat representing Buenos Aires province, Fernandez Kirchner entered the race representing a new party called the Peronist Victory Front. Numerous candidates in provinces throughout Argentina have since sided with one or the other faction.

Since its inception, Peronism has accommodated candidates from a wide political spectrum, resisting easy classification as leftist or rightist. The Kirchners, who identify themselves as "center-left," have suggested that more specific labels are needed to help voters distinguish candidates under the broad umbrella of Peronism. However, the current split personified by the dueling first ladies is more personal than ideological, according to analysts.

Former president Carlos Menem, who served from 1989 to 1999, leaped into the fray this past week. In an editorial in Clarin newspaper, he wrote that the Kirchners were destroying Peronism by dividing its base.

"The strategic decision of the national government to advance the confrontation with the Peronist party in Buenos Aires marks a 'before and after' in Argentina's political life," wrote Menem. "Today more than ever, we need to follow the axiom of Peron: Unity, solidarity and organization."

For politicians outside the Peronist party, the split isn't the opportunity it might seem. Ricardo Lopez Murphy, who heads an opposition party and is running for the same Senate seat as Fernandez Kirchner and Gonzalez Duhalde, told reporters last week that he believes the Peronist party simply wants to flood the ballot with its own people.

According to national election rules, the victorious party chooses two of the three seats representing the province in the Argentine Senate; the second-place party chooses the third. That means Peronists -- of one stripe or the other -- could fill all three seats.

"The society of Buenos Aires must liberate itself from its esposas," said Murphy, making a pun with a word that in Spanish can mean either "handcuffs" or "wives." "Obviously we will pay the price, and the ruling party will achieve what they have always sought: the elimination of minority parties."

Few critics accuse the first ladies of being mere puppets of their husbands' political desires. Fernandez Kirchner was a well-known senator from the province of Santa Cruz before her husband was elected president. Gonzalez Duhalde, known affectionately as Chiche, is a congressional deputy and former head of the government's social programs for the poor.

At the rallies Tuesday night, supporters championed each of the candidates as following in Evita's path as benefactors of children, the poor and disadvantaged.

"For true Argentine Peronists like us, we believe that Chiche Duhalde is still the first lady, and there is no other like her," said Victor Valmazeda, 42, a father of five who attended the Gonzalez Duhalde rally. "For Argentines, she is the second coming of Evita."

The supporters of Fernandez Kirchner were no less reverential.

"She's committed to the people just like Evita was, and she won't let them down," said Natalia Orrego, 26.

With all of the speculation about Evita's would-be opinions, her husband's descriptions of inter-party disagreements suggest he may have viewed the current battle as just another step in Peronism's evolution.

Peronists, Juan Peron noted, are like cats: "It may seem as if they are fighting," he was quoted as saying, "but they are really reproducing."

Special correspondent Brian Byrnes contributed to this report.

Cristina Fernandez KirchnerHilda

Gonzalez Duhalde