THE winner of Spain's historic vote, Jose Maria Aznar, has the prime minister's ornate Moncloa Palace finally in his sights after his defeat of Felipe Gonzalez, the longtime Socialist premier.
But he can't move in quite yet. Mr. Aznar's conservative Popular Party won general elections on Sunday with 156 seats, falling well short of a majority in the 350-seat parliament. He's now thinking hard over coalition partners, and will likely have to spend weeks negotiating with the tough Jordi Pujol, who heads the nationalists of the Catalonia region - and whose party has a significant minority of 16 seats in parliament.
Yet the vote has ushered in a new era of Spanish politics after 13 years of Socialist rule. The Spanish right has not won power through an election since 1934, before Francisco Franco's dictatorship.
Aznar has been persistent. This vote was his third try at Spain's top job and a final realization of his goal, if not his childhood dream. ''At first he wanted to be a bullfighter,'' his mother, Elvira, told a Spanish news magazine. ''Then it was a soccer player. And a couple of years later, when he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would answer 'the prime minister.'''
Aznar grew up in Madrid's well-off and conservative Salamanca neighborhood where today rightists still hawk Franco memorabilia in the streets. He studied law at a Madrid university, later landing a job as a tax inspector. In 1978, Aznar joined the Popular Alliance party, created by former Franco minister Manuel Fraga. Four years later, he was elected parliamentary deputy for the central city of Avila in the same election that swept Mr. Gonzalez to the premiership.
Despite electoral success and its position as Spain's main opposition party, the Popular Alliance was seen by the majority of voters as an unrepentant Francoist grouping, and they returned the Socialists to power in 1986 elections. Three years later, desperate to project a younger and more modern image and in a bid to unite the now fractious group, party leaders picked the youthful Aznar to run for the top office in the land.
''I am not a son of Francoism ... I am a son of democracy,'' Aznar said at the time.
But the party, which is now called the Popular Party (PP), lost again, hurt by Socialist allegations that victory for Aznar would drag Spain back to the dark days of Franco's dictatorship.
It was the wake-up call Aznar needed. He began distancing the party from its own extreme right wing, brought in young blood, and moved it toward the center where he knew the growing middle class felt more comfortable.
''I have transformed the PP into a party of the center, which is what I've wanted to do for five years, and which is what Spain needed,'' Aznar recently said.
By the time the last elections rolled around in 1993, Aznar had almost convinced Spanish voters. However, Gonzalez once again trotted out the rightist bugaboo line and the PP lost, although the Socialists did not manage to garner enough votes for a working majority in parliament.
The youth vote
Growing scandals were further sapping Socialist strength. This time around, Aznar knew exactly which buttons to push to attract support. With a quarter of Spain's 32 million-strong electorate too young to remember Franco, the PP leader went after the youth vote.
He promised to cut the nine-month obligatory military service to six months, vowed to govern cleanly, and pledged to create jobs for the young. Spain suffers from the European Union's highest unemployment rate at almost 23 percent. Among young adults aged 20 to 25, it is 42 percent.
Aznar also appealed to the urban middle class, vowing tax cuts, a crackdown on crime, reducing the budget deficit, and to crush the Basque separatist organization ETA, which has killed almost 800 people in its 28-year campaign for the independence of Spain's Basque region.
Meanwhile, Aznar burnished his own image. The thin, mustachioed man, whom many likened to a tailor's dummy, worked hard to loosen up on the hustings and in TV interviews and projected himself as a mature and strong leader. The defining moment in this makeover was last year, when ETA set off a powerful bomb just as Aznar's car was passing. Although the blast totalled Aznar's armor-plated vehicle, he calmly walked away unassisted from the smoking mess.
The long years spent changing how both the party and himself are seen by Spanish voters worked. Now Aznar must prove their confidence was well-placed.