By Nicolás Misculin and Eliana Raszewski
BUENOS AIRES, Aug 9 (Reuters) - Argentina's opposition have their sights set on voters like Alfredo Espinoza, 55, a recently laid-off metals worker from the edge of Buenos Aires, looking to tap into rising hardship to rally supporters and win over swing voters disenchanted by President Mauricio Macri.
Espinoza lost his job in April and now scrapes a living selling barbecued steak and local "choripan" sausage sandwiches beside the road in the suburban area of Jose Leon Suarez, part of a densely populated ring around the capital.
His plight, and that of others hit by a deep recession, rising unemployment and inflation is giving ammunition to Macri's main rival, Alberto Fernandez, ahead of presidential elections in October.
In 2015, Macri was the challenger, with a message of hope and change that appealed to many Argentines weary with a spluttering economy and corruption after 12 years of leftist populist rule by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner.
Now, Macri is the incumbent having to explain why his economic promises have largely failed to materialize. The danger he faces is that newly impoverished Argentines like Espinoza may be more energized to vote to punish him at the polls, while some of his disenchanted middle class backers could stay home or spoil their votes, say political analysts.
On Sunday, voters will get their first chance to give their verdict on the bitter pill economic policies that Macri says are needed to put the economy on a firmer footing but have helped to fuel soaring inflation, hitting Argentines hard in their pocketbooks. The primary elections will be an important gauge of how the key candidates are doing ahead of the general election on Oct. 27.
Fernandez has only a slight edge over Macri in opinion polls, so winning over voters like Espinoza will be key for both of them.
"We've been badly squeezed," Espinoza told Reuters beside his rudimentary home-made barbecue with a sign saying "Choripan $1."
"It is as everyone says, with the other government we lived a little better and it is true," he said, referring to the populist administration of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who was president from 2007-2015. She is now Alberto Fernandez's running mate on the main opposition ticket.
Alberto Fernández, looking to spur the opposition's base to come out and vote, presents himself as the "common man," in contrast to the wealthy, well-tailored Macri. He campaigns as a unifier on the slogan "the future includes everyone."
Fernandez has vowed to "re-work" Argentina's $57-billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which many Argentines blame for the economic austerity measures. He has also promised access to free medicines for retirees and better wages for workers.
"Macri came to power and turned off the knob of the economy. Consumption fell, production collapsed, unemployment increased and many people fell into poverty," Fernandez said in a recent post on Twitter.
In a campaign video on the "new poor", the center-left Peronist claims that 4.1 million people have fallen into poverty since Macri took office in 2015. "We can't allow 4 more years of this," he says.
Researchers at two Argentine universities estimate that 35% of the population is living in poverty, up from the official government rate of 27.3% in the first half of last year.
Macri's administration, meanwhile, points to signs of improvement in the economy like tempering inflation and a revival in economic activity, and urges people to stick with the government as reforms start to bear fruit.
"Even if it takes time, it's worth the effort," Macri says in one campaign video showing highways, train lines and other major investment projects the administration argues are key to revitalizing growth.
Macri's office declined to comment for this story, but Fernando Iglesias, a member of Macri's Juntos por el Cambio party and national congressman for the city of Buenos Aires, defended the president's record in office.
"They (the previous government) left us with a fiscal deficit of 8% and now we are reaching a zero deficit. They left us with destroyed infrastructure and we did the most public works in the last 50 years. The numbers are not good, poverty is up, but we are talking about manageable numbers," Iglesias said.
Macri has said he feels "the pain of each person going through tough times." "But things are not done overnight, that is what magicians do," he said at a recent rally in Buenos Aires.
"WITH MACRI, IT BECAME MUCH WORSE"
But in a country that has battled on and off with recession for decades patience is in short supply.
"This is not something that is just happening in this government, we went through many governments that took us to this situation, the extreme poverty," said Lidia Cusillo, a mother of six who survives on a state pension in the poor Laferrere district outside Buenos Aires.
"But with Macri, it became much worse," said Cusillo, a former Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner voter who plans to vote for Alberto Fernandez this year. "It is what I see in the working-class neighborhood where there is a lot of poverty and unemployment."
Macri's dilemma is that despite the nascent signs of an economic revival, voters like Cusillo still don't feel any better off.
That's a challenge for Macri, because poorer Argentines are a key voting bloc in elections. While they have historically favored the generous social welfare programs beloved of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, he cannot afford to ignore them.
They tend to live in regions with the highest concentration of registered voters, giving them the power to sway results in battleground areas like Buenos Aires province.
Many live in the less-affluent areas around Buenos Aires, known as the "Conurbano", which is home to almost 40% of the country's electorate. Macri lost the province in the 2015 run-off that secured him the presidency, and another bad showing in the region this year would seriously damage his chances of re-election.
Ahead of the primaries, Fernandez's campaign has been on the road, meeting voters across the country to press home the attack on Macri's handling of the economy.
"It's not that we have to convince Argentines that we have to change course - we do have to change course," said Fernanda Vallejos, a Buenos Aires congresswoman who is part of Fernandez's coalition.
PAYING THE BILLS
It's not only the most vulnerable who say they have been hit by the crisis.
Valeria Goldsztein, a 48-year-old graphic designer who voted for Macri in 2015, said she was buying fewer new clothes as inflation outstripped her income, instead turning to second-hand markets and online forums for exchanging and selling her 11-year-old daughter's old outfits.
"I can't get by otherwise because my income is below what I need to spend," Goldsztein said.
She said she was "very disappointed" with the administration and did not know who she would vote for this time around.
This sort of belt-tightening could hurt Macri with his middle class voters, even if some said it didn't necessarily mean they would vote for Fernandez.
"In October I'll either cast a blank vote or won't vote at all," said Dalia Alvarez, an artist and teacher in Buenos Aires who voted for Macri in the 2015 run-off.
She blamed a lack of opportunities for her two daughters, inflation and the slowdown that had hit her family's income.
Jorge Giacobbe, who runs polling firm Giacobbe & Asociados SA in Buenos Aires said that in one survey respondents were asked to define the election candidates in one word. For Fernandez de Kirchner, the word was 'corrupt.' For Macri, it was 'useless.' For Alberto Fernandez, 'flip-flopper.'
"I think that inflation and the economic situation have already done as much damage as they could to the government in the same way that corruption did all the damage it could do to Kirchnerism," said Giacobbe. "Now everything depends on who you fear the most: Cristina or Macri?"
Student Milagros Jojot, 23, who lives in the poor northern province of Formosa exemplifies the dilemma facing many voters.
"I'm going to vote again for Macri, although I don't feel very satisfied with what he has done with his term, because I think he needs more time to see his projects through," he said. "I also don't want Kirchnerismo to win," referring to the closed-economy policies of Nestor and Cristina Kirchner.
Shila Vilker, director of public opinion consultancy Trespuntozero, said voters heading into this weekend's primary elections were clearly sharply divided.
"If it was a direct, linear relationship between the economy and the vote then the election would already be over," she said. ($1 = 45.1670 Argentine pesos)
(Reporting by Nicolas Misculin, Eliana Raszewski, Miguel Lo Bianco, Marina Lammertyn and Agustin Marcarian; Additional reporting by Dave Sherwood in Santiago and Cassandra Garrison in Buenos Aires; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Ross Colvin)
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