Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, one of the top candidates in Liberia's presidential election this month, was chatting recently with President John Kufuor of Ghana.

"Do you have a problem with a woman president?" she recalled asking him. Kufuor's response, she said, was: "I don't consider you a woman."

Johnson-Sirleaf said she laughed, but in some ways she agreed with him. Nicknamed the "Iron Lady of Liberia," the 66-year-old economist has often held jobs in fields dominated by men, including finance minister of Liberia and vice president of Citicorp. She has also run for office against one autocratic Liberian leader and gone to prison for criticizing another.

If elected in Tuesday's vote, the first since the end of a long civil war, she would become the first female president in Africa, joining a fraternity whose members are often described as "Big Men."

"My whole life has been in hard areas women are not usually in," she said in a recent interview. Male African leaders "associate me with the types of thinking men normally do. . . . I've challenged men. I've challenged Charles Taylor," she added pointedly.

Taylor is the former warlord who invaded his country with a rebel group in 1989, became president and was forced from power in 2003. He now lives in exile in Nigeria. His exit opened the way for a peace accord and left the country in the hands of a transitional government and a large U.N. peacekeeping force.

Johnson-Sirleaf, after backing Taylor in the 1980s, ran against him in the 1997 presidential election and came in second.

Supporters play up her tough side, and a popular campaign pin reads: "Ellen, she's our man."

Detractors have suggested she is too old to lead the country and past her political prime. She is a bespectacled grandmother of six, and rumors have circulated that she walks with a cane or uses a wheelchair.

But during a recent campaign trip through Gbarpolu County, a few hours northeast of the capital, Johnson-Sirleaf's demeanor was anything but geriatric.

In one village, she danced with supporters as they chanted "We love you, old Ma," and donated a bag of rice and about $40 to the crowd (a common gesture of charity that is not seen here as vote-buying). The back of her car was stocked with bags of candy and posters, which she handed out to children at every chance.

"We don't want to see you sitting around the village. We want to see you in school," she told young people. "What's in your head, nobody can take away from you."

On many mud walls, there were campaign posters of both Johnson-Sirleaf and her main rival in the field of 22 candidates, retired soccer star George Weah, 39. She acknowledged the two were in a "dead heat," but said she thought her chances were bolstered by the fact that more than half the country's 1.3 million registered voters are women.

"Weah is popular with children. People come out to see him, but are they all voters?" said William Mawolo, 42, the mayor of a town called Bopolu. "Ellen has been with the people a very long time."

There are other differences, too. Weah never finished high school; Johnson-Sirleaf holds a master's degree in public administration from Harvard.

Johnson-Sirleaf's campaign pledges to stop corruption and promote development hold appeal for people in Liberia, which emerged in 2003 from 14 years of civil war that left an estimated 200,000 dead and the infrastructure destroyed.

She also has promised to bring electricity to the capital within six months and to launch an ambitious education program that includes rebuilding schools, opening vocational training centers and promoting sports.

Although Johnson-Sirleaf's election would make her the first female head of government in Africa, she is one of a long list of Liberian women who have made their mark on domestic or international politics.

In 1969, Angie Brooks became the first African woman named president of the U.N. General Assembly. In 1996-97, Ruth Sando Perry was Liberia's head of state as leader of the National Transitional Government.

Some observers say Liberian women have always been outspoken and progressive because of their roots in a society founded by freed slaves from the United States.

According to the Rev. Katurah York Cooper, 50, a pastor at the African Methodist Episcopal church here, the founders came with "an empowering idea" that has "affected our people as a whole." Moreover, she said, the civil war put women in charge of households and communities because so many men were away fighting and dying.

Gibson Jerue, news editor at the Analyst newspaper, said many Liberian men were "afraid of ladies in power, because we believe women are quick to take action." But he added that men would respect a female leader only if she stays on the "straight and narrow."

Opponents of Johnson-Sirleaf said her credibility had been hurt by her former affiliation with Taylor, whom she initially supported in the 1980s when he tried to force a previous autocrat, Samuel K. Doe, from power.

Now, despite Taylor's forced exile, his shadow hangs over the upcoming election. He is said to maintain contact with supporters and is suspected of backing militias in the region. He is hated and feared by many Liberians because of widespread abuses committed by his forces during his rule.

During a presidential debate last month, one candidate, Varney Sherman, a lawyer, bellowed at Johnson-Sirleaf: "What have you done to advance the cause of the common people? You funded the destruction of this country!" His outburst sent the crowd, composed of local leaders and journalists, into a frenzy.

Johnson-Sirleaf has insisted that she backed Taylor only in his early efforts against Doe, and that once she realized he was after power himself, she spent the next several years working to remove him.

Under Doe, who took power in a 1980 coup, Johnson-Sirleaf was named president of the Liberian National Bank but resigned after his administration committed human rights violations. She was jailed twice for speaking out against Doe, and eventually went into exile in the United States.

That is when her relationship with Taylor started, she said. At the time he was a youth leader, working with exiles in the United States to put pressure on Doe's government. Johnson-Sirleaf said she helped raise $10,000 for Taylor, who then invaded Liberia from Ivory Coast in 1989, setting off the intermittent civil war.

But she said she became disillusioned when an associate of hers was killed in Taylor's territory. She had made a mistake to trust him, she said.

"We accepted him at face value," Johnson-Sirleaf said. "He represented for us the pressure that we needed to bring on Doe. He was only after power himself and personal enrichment. He was a criminal at heart."

According to Jerue, the journalist, Johnson-Sirleaf's biggest challenge as president would not be how to keep Taylor from causing trouble but how to placate former heads of rival insurgent factions, some of whom hold senior positions in the transitional government. Johnson-Sirleaf said she would work with them through intermediaries, offering them educational and business opportunities.

On the campaign trail in Bopolu, at the end of a red dirt road pocked with enormous puddles, she dropped into Liberian-accented English and addressed a crowd at dusk by the glow of her car's headlights.

"We don't want any more cata cata," she shouted, using a slang expression for corruption. "Women, are you ready for history?"

After a brief speech, she handed out bags of rice and money for the town to buy a cow. The small crowd cheered a little and then drifted toward the free dinner provided by her political party. Campaign music played over scratchy loudspeakers. Women's sang her praises.

"Who wants the mansion key? Ellen wants the mansion key," they sang.

Liberian presidential candidate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf wades through supporters at a campaign rally in the capital, Monrovia. She is a leader in the field of 22.Most registered voters in Liberia are women, raising Johnson-Sirleaf's hopes.