Everyone in the audience was dressed in dark blue or black. Some wore clerical collars, and most had heavy silver crosses dangling around their necks. But Michelle Bachelet wore an electric pink jacket that sent a clear message: She was a candidate for president, not sainthood.

"I'm agnostic. . . . I believe in the state," Bachelet told several groups of evangelical ministers last week. "I believe the state has an important role in guaranteeing the diversity of men and women in Chile -- their different spiritualities, philosophies and ways of life."

Bachelet, 54, a socialist running in national elections Sunday, has a strong chance of becoming Chile's first female head of state -- and thus the first woman in South America to be elected to the top national office without replacing a deceased or disabled husband.

As a single mother, Bachelet is a symbol of change in a country so culturally conservative that it legalized divorce only last year. As both the child of a military family and a victim of prison and torture under the former military dictatorship, she is also a symbol of healing in a country long divided by ideology, class and competing versions of a tumultuous recent history.

Running against two conservative male candidates, Bachelet has maintained a commanding lead in the polls, even while openly airing personal details that she believes represent Chile's shifting cultural landscape.

Although a substantial number of Chileans remain opposed to divorce, most voters don't seem bothered by the fact that Bachelet readily acknowledges she split up with her husband and bore two children while unmarried. Although the Catholic Church has long been the country's dominant cultural institution, her avowed lack of interest in religion has not hurt her, either. And even though just 36 percent of Chilean women hold jobs -- the lowest percentage in Latin America -- Bachelet has won support with her promise to choose women for at least half of her cabinet posts.

"My candidacy represents a society that is more progressive and modern, that recognizes both men and women do have talents," said Bachelet, who most recently served as defense minister for President Ricardo Lagos. "People want politicians who are more concerned about citizens, who do things more ethically, and in that sense there is an expectation that women could be different in their way of doing politics."

In a poll released Thursday, Bachelet led the field of candidates with 41 percent support. Sebastian Pinera, a former senator who is one of Chile's wealthiest men, was projected to finish second with 22 percent. Joaquin Lavin, a conservative former mayor of Santiago, received 19 percent support, according to the poll, conducted by the Center for Contemporary Reality Studies here.

If none of the candidates receives 50 percent of votes cast on Sunday, a second and decisive round of voting between the top two finishers will be held Jan. 15. Polls project that Bachelet would win handily in a head-to-head matchup against either of her opponents.

Despite their divergent political histories and views, all three candidates have emphasized the same core goals: battling unemployment, improving the social security system, narrowing the divide between rich and poor and improving public health services. Gender hasn't been an overt campaign theme for anyone, but it is a powerful undercurrent that can be felt everywhere on the campaign trail.

Bachelet's campaign ads and promotional materials carry an understated but unmistakable message of reaching out to those usually excluded from Chile's political life. Her slogan is "I'm With You," and the promotional materials that outline her platform include a variety of photographed faces, every one of them a woman's or a child's.

"She's already doing things in a different way, and people have criticized her harshly for it," said Marta Lagos, a Santiago-based pollster and political analyst, who is not related to the current president. "She has a daughter, and in September they took a few days off and went to the beach in the middle of the campaign. It's unthinkable for any politician to say, 'I'm with my family, and this is my time -- no one else's.' But that's what she has said."

Bachelet's direct political experience is limited to the past five years. She served as health minister from 2000 to 2002 before Lagos named her defense minister. She enjoys the full support of her popular former boss, who cannot seek reelection because of term limits and is leaving office with an approval rating of about 70 percent. From a policy standpoint, Bachelet is closely aligned with Lagos, and her candidacy is widely viewed as a continuation of his administration, which has emphasized the use of free-trade initiatives to finance expanded social programs.

But there is another source of her appeal, one that is rarely mentioned but seems significant in a society that experienced extreme political upheaval and military repression from the 1970s to the 1990s. The trauma split the society into bitter factions, and it remained deeply divided for years after the return of democracy in 1990. Bachelet's history falls on both sides of that divide. Her father, Alberto, was an air force general who served under President Salvador Allende, a socialist. He was thrown into prison after the 1973 military coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, along with thousands of other Allende supporters, and died in military custody.

Bachelet, a medical student at the time of the coup, was kidnapped by government security agents two years later, along with her mother. While detained, both women were blindfolded, beaten and tortured. They later fled into exile in Australia and East Germany. In 1979, Bachelet returned to Chile and worked as a pediatrician.

Today Pinochet, 90, is under house arrest in suburban Santiago, indicted on corruption and human rights abuse charges. The specter of his 17-year dictatorship played a prominent role in the three previous presidential elections since the restoration of civilian rule, but it has rarely been mentioned in this campaign.

Despite her own family's suffering under Pinochet, Bachelet has not used it to gain voter sympathy. Although she has become a leading voice for women's rights, she prefers not to speak about what she and her mother endured in prison except to say generally that they were "physically mistreated."

The poetic justice of Bachelet's likely victory at the polls, in fact, is pointed out far more often by international observers than by Chileans themselves.

"Pinochet's shadow at this point is not even strong enough to be called a shadow," said Andres Velasco, a professor of international finance at Harvard University who has taken a sabbatical to assist Bachelet's campaign. "It's annoying to read so much about Pinochet in the foreign press, because the dictatorship is not even an issue here anymore."

One sign of how much the country has changed since the days when men in uniform dominated political discourse, Bachelet's advisers said, can be seen in the list of candidates for Chile's congressional elections, also slated for Sunday.

"More than 25 percent of our candidates running in these elections are women," said Ricardo Nunez, president of Chile's ruling Socialist Party. "During the last round of elections, that number was 15 percent. Following Bachelet, I am sure the number will just keep rising."

If elected, Bachelet would be the first female president in most of Latin America to be elected strictly on her own merits. Isabel Peron took over as Argentina's president in 1974 when her husband Juan died. Violeta Chamorro was elected president of Nicaragua in 1990, but she was largely known as the widow of Pedro Chamorro, an assassinated newspaper publisher. In Panama, the widow of President Arnulfo Arias became president in 1999. In Guyana, voters in 1997 elected the widow of longtime President Cheddi Jagan. Bolivia, Haiti and Ecuador have all appointed women briefly as caretaker presidents.

A Bachelet presidency might not be unique for long, however. If the polls in Peru are borne out, a former congresswoman, Lourdes Flores Nano, may win its presidency next year. In that case, the neighboring countries, long embroiled in border and maritime disputes, might have a chance to solve them woman-to-woman.

Michelle Bachelet, 54, a socialist, maintains a strong lead in polls for Sunday's election.Michelle Bachelet easily leads two conservative male candidates in polls.