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PSOE prepares to evaluate Rubalcaba's soft-landing strategy

Candidate's approach was to minimize scope of conservative victory

Following the televised debate between Socialist (PSOE) prime-ministerial candidate Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba and Popular Party (PP) contender Mariano Rajoy, people criticized the former for allegedly acting as though Rajoy had already won the elections. They said that this was not a winning attitude.

What critics failed to understand is that Rubalcaba was not trying to eat into Rajoy's constituency. It was a given, considering the results published in all opinion polls in the weeks before the vote, that the conservatives would win. The question was by how much. And that is where Rubalcaba really waged his campaign. In retrospect, his every statement has been deliberately aimed at a specific segment of the population - the hundreds of thousands of disaffected Socialist voters who defined themselves as undecided in the run-up to this particular election, due to the government's enactment of tough austerity measures to appease the markets.

It was with those voters in mind that Rubalcaba pressed Rajoy, over and over again during the debate, on what he would do on sensitive issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, healthcare or social welfare when he was sitting in La Moncloa. His point was to prove that the PP could use an absolute majority in Congress to make "tough cuts" on these and other matters, and that it was of the essence to prevent the conservatives from wielding too much power.

"The PP does not mean change; it means going backward," he has said repeatedly on the campaign trail. His goal all along has not been to win, but to have a sufficiently significant representation in parliament to act as an effective check on a PP government.

Yet even then, it was tricky going. Besides criticizing his opponent for a notable lack of definition on the issues, Rubalcaba went out on a limb with specific proposals of his own on taxes, education reform and employment policies. But of course, it has been all too easy for Rajoy to ask him why he never made these proposals while he was the prime minister's right-hand man until just three months ago. Rubalcaba's line of defense has been that times have changed and that while austerity was called for at the time, recent signs of economic improvement meant that the incoming government could undertake new investment to encourage growth. But that, of course, was before Spain's risk premium soared out of control last week and left the country teetering on the brink of a bailout.

Those who have seen him in action during his 41 rallies across Spain underscore the "courage and dignity" of his campaigning in the face of major adversity, and insist that he will be an able leader of the opposition. What remains to be seen is who will be the new leader of the Socialists when the party holds a national congress early next year. Before that, all eyes will be on a regional Catalan Socialist party congress scheduled for December 18 and 19, which experts feel may have a significant effect on the national caucus.

This will be especially true if outgoing Defense Minister Carme Chacón decides to run for regional party leader, and perhaps later for the position of secretary general of the Spanish Socialists. "Let's see if anyone dares say that a Catalan woman cannot lead the Socialist Party," Chacón said defiantly only last week, although without specifying whether she would really try out for the post or not.

Chacón had originally prepared to run in primaries against Rubalcaba to be the Socialist candidate in yesterday's elections, but she eventually stepped down in favor of the individual that everyone felt had the strongest chance of success, or, at least, the safest pair of hands to minimize the defeat.