Grey man with a streak of steel set for power in Spain

Spaniards are getting used to the idea that the conservative Popular Party leader, Jose Maria Aznar, the man who addresses his shirt buttons when he speaks, is set to become their next prime minister.

As the campaign for Sunday's elections closes today with the PP comfortably ahead, Mr Aznar, who once said, "I am alive because they have denigrated me", is being likened to John Major as an example of how greyness can rule OK.

With victory over the Socialist Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, in sight, commentators are muting their previous contempt, to uncover hidden merits in the uncharismatic figure who has made the PP a convincing contender for government. Most conclude that what you see is what you get: "a single- faceted, ordinary man" says the traditionally pro-Socialist El Pais newspaper.

The comparison with Mr Major gains force from context. Many, perhaps most, Spaniards - like Britons at the end of the Thatcher era - are weary of a long-serving glamorous leader who has filled the stage for more than 13 years and seduced them with promises. Many want not a crusader to chivvy them on forced marches but a quiet manager who will leave them alone.

Intentionally or not, Mr Aznar's advisers emphasise his lack of qualities. One points out "his extraordinary normality"; another says, "he is a very ordinary chap, sometimes excessively so". But the former tax inspector from a comfortable middle-class family has shown his steel. He has quietly imposed his will on the party he took over in 1989. Potential challengers or dissidents have been unplugged, and there is talk of fear in the party's upper reaches.

He also showed mettle when he walked calmly from his twisted heap of a car after a bomb attack by ETA Basque separatists last April. Mr Aznar's popular standing soared, and he even joked afterwards: "Now, it seems, I have charisma."

Mr Aznar, 43 last weekend, has run a slick campaign, avoiding territory where he risked being ambushed, that of a face-to-face confrontation with Mr Gonzalez, and revealing only the barest outline of what a PP government would do. He makes a virtue of his Delphic utterances: "I promise nothing," he says. "I have no commitment to any person, sector or social group. I have a completely free hand because I don't owe anybody anything." He has also exploited his deadpan personality. "I am calm, I am serene," he assures his supporters, who roar their approval.

He has loosened up in the past weeks - perched on the edge of the platform dangling his legs and soaking up the adulation - but not enough to dispel the impression that he would rather be in his office, or at home with his wife, three children and two cocker spaniels.

Mr Aznar goes everywhere with his wife, Ana Botella, a bright, outgoing woman who has a popular following of her own. Her presence at every meeting breaks the mould of Spanish electioneering and prompts suggestions that they aspire to be an American-style presidential couple. Ms Botella, whose biography was published last year before that of her husband, pooh-poohs the idea. The first lady of Spain, she observes, is Queen Sofia.

Ms Botella embodies the traditional, pre-feminist woman for whom family is everything and whose life is fulfilled in the shadow of a powerful husband. She buys his clothes, doles out his pocket money. The couple reflect the kind of Spaniard Mr Aznar seeks to attract: modern but respectful of tradition, educated but undaring.

They are - to use one of Mr Aznar's favourites words - "correct": Mr and Mrs Normal. "Spain," he says, "needs a spot of normality."

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