Argentina's presidential candidates debate ahead of uncertain runoff


By Hernan Nessi and Lucinda Elliott

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 12 (Reuters) - With no clear winner in sight, Argentina's two presidential candidates went head-to-head on Sunday in the final televised debate ahead of the Nov. 19 runoff in one of the most consequential election cycles in a generation.

Argentines will be asked to decide between two starkly different visions for South America's second largest economy when they take to the polls in a week's time.

Center-left ruling party economy chief, Sergio Massa, has defended the peso currency while his rival, anti-establishment outsider Javier Milei, plans to dollarize the economy that is set for a recession and struggling with inflation over 100%.

Latest polls predict the second-round vote going either way, with Milei taking a slight lead. Sunday's debate was considered one of the last chances to win over undecided voters. Nearly 10 million voted for other candidates, spoiled their ballots or voted in blank in the Oct.22 first round.

Pragmatist Massa, who has pledged a unity government, went on the attack, presenting direct questions to Milei over his criticism of the Pope, plans to cut subsidies and privatize state-owned companies.

"Yes or no: are you going to dollarize the economy? Are you going to cut subsidies?" Massa said.

Milei, an economist and former TV pundit, did not deliver a direct response, but reiterated his commitment to close the central bank because it "generates inflation."

Andrei Roman from pollster Atlas Intel said Massa was more aggressive than Milei in the debate.

"Massa won the debate and Milei lost it..However, that doesn't mean he lost voters," Roman said.

According to political analyst, Federico González, Massa and Milei had been "head-to-head in the polls" for the past 10 days, and that the debate would favor the candidate who made the "least mistakes," he told local radio.

Winner of the election will take office on Dec. 10.

(Reporting by Hernan Nessi & Lucinda Elliott; Editing by Michael Perry)

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