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INTERVIEW-Argentina's Scioli urges investors to take the long view

BUENOS AIRES, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Daniel Scioli, a leading early contender in Argentina's presidential election race, is urging investors to look beyond the country's recent economic upheaval that triggered the biggest drop in the peso in a decade and rattled global markets.

The sharp slide last month of the Argentine peso, which so far this year has shed 16.5 percent of its value, has raised investor concerns of a brewing financial crisis in South America's second-largest economy.

Scioli, who is governor of Buenos Aires province and is widely expected to seek the presidency next year, will travel to New York this week to meet businessmen and investors and encourage them to take a longer view on Argentina's economy.

"You can't speak in apocalyptic terms about a country that has an unemployment rate of 6.5 percent and one of the lowest debt levels in the world," he told Reuters on Tuesday.

He described the reaction to the recent financial turmoil as "overblown," adding that, "things have stabilized now."

Scioli, a former speed boat racer, is one of Argentina's most popular politicians. Although an ally of leftist President Cristina Fernandez, he is widely seen as more of a centrist and more likely to adopt business-friendly policies.

Scioli challenged the perception that Fernandez is anti-business, underlining his support for her, while also hinting about issues he thinks the next government must address.

"The next political cycle will require a politician who can help carry over the best policies, corrects what needs to be corrected and helps to generate more confidence," he said.

Scioli served as vice president under former President Nestor Kirchner, Fernandez's late husband. Although he has not formally announced that he will be a candidate next year, his aides handed out pens before the interview in downtown Buenos Aires with the slogan "Scioli 2015."

His visit to New York is viewed as an early international appearance ahead of the election. He plans to tell investors to take advantage of opportunities in Argentina's energy, tourism and mining sectors.

"Whoever decides to invest early is going to have the biggest earnings," he said.

Argentina's financial tumult has been marked by dwindling currency reserves, a weakening peso and double-digit inflation. Shut off from international credit markets since a $100 billion default in 2001, the country relies on its foreign reserves to make debt payments.

On Monday, foreign reserves stood at $27.74 billion, down from more than $52 billion in 2011.

Argentina's central bank recently staunched the drain of foreign reserves and bolstered the peso, now trading at 7.8 pesos to the dollar, by raising interest rates and reducing the amount of dollars banks can hold.

Scioli said agricultural shipments this year from Argentina, the world's third-biggest corn and soybean exporter, would earn more than $30 billion, helping to steady reserves and bolster the economy.

Scioli is a member of Fernandez's Peronist Party, from which the front-runner in the 2015 vote is expected to emerge, and he has a strong power base in Buenos Aires province, the country's largest.

At least two other Peronists, Cordoba's provincial governor Jose Manuel de la Sota and congressman Sergio Massa, have strongly suggested they might run. They have both been critics of Fernandez.

Other potential candidates include Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri from the center-right PRO party, and Hermes Binner, a socialist congressman.

The vote next year could signal whether there is a political shift toward more market-friendly economic policies than those under Fernandez, who has ramped up government spending, fueling one of the highest inflation rates in the world.

The province Scioli governs is home to almost 40 percent of the country's population, some of Argentina's most productive agricultural lands and its leading industrial centers.

Nearly the size of Italy, the province contributes 40 percent of Argentina's gross domestic product.

"The country has made significant improvements," he said. "Now we have a new set of challenges."

(Writing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Kieran Murray and Andre Grenon)