LAS VEGAS - MasterCard International's new chief of U.S. operations expresses the optimism and pluck of a "We're No. 2 - we try harder"-style executive.

"We're going to be the leader," vowed Ruth Ann Marshall, who joined MasterCard in October as president of the North American region. "We're well-positioned to move into that space, and I'm not going to be content until we do."

Her determination belies a competition between Visa U.S.A. and MasterCard that is not - to be blunt about it - very close. Visa is the dominant, with 51% of the U.S. market of general-purpose credit and debit cards. MasterCard had 25% of that market in 1999, according to The Nilson Report, an industry newsletter, and American Express Co. had 17%. Discover and Diners Club had the rest.

Ms. Marshall, a card industry veteran who hails from the world of automated teller machines, said increasing MasterCard's market share is not just a top priority, but "the bottom line."

"Everything that I do, everything that I spend time on should be aimed at growing our market share," she said in an interview at the Electronic Transactions Association's annual meeting here.

Ms. Marshall, 44, is MasterCard's first woman regional president. A cheerful and dynamic person whose colleagues praise her social skills and love of travel, Ms. Marshall recently confided to a reporter at a MasterCard-sponsored banquet that, if she had her druthers, she would have worn a leather miniskirt.

She reports to Alan Heuer, MasterCard's senior executive vice president in charge of customer-related activities. Mr. Heuer, who previously held a post similar to Ms. Marshall's, was promoted last year in a management restructuring that loosened the association's organization by geography. Three other regional presidents report to Mr. Heuer.

Ms. Marshall is in charge of building all aspects of MasterCard's card-issuing and acceptance business in North America, and she says that Citibank's new allegiance to MasterCard will help her achieve her goals. Citi, the world's biggest card issuer, is an "anchor tenant" in a new "space," Ms. Marshall said. She hopes other banks that have traditionally tilted toward Visa will follow suit by making a greater commitment to MasterCard.

Last year the Citigroup Inc. subsidiary had a falling out with Visa over branding and money issues and abruptly decided to convert the majority of its credit cards to MasterCard. "The Citi transaction has changed the leadership paradigm," Ms. Marshall said.

MasterCard's "segmentation strategy," in which banks that commit more volume are rewarded, has thus far been extended only to the association's largest global members. Ms. Marshall plans to offer enticements to a wider swath of banks in the United States and Canada.

Ms. Marshall said MasterCard must depart from a "credit-centric" mindset and continue its expansion into new markets, including chip cards, prepaid cards, and commercial cards. On the issuing side, banks want a "partner," not a "patriarch," she said. To satisfy banks' interest in customized card programs, Ms. Marshall's division will double the staff dedicated to giving banks confidential consulting services.

Thursday, when Ms. Marshall addressed the estimated 1,500 merchant-acquiring executives at the ETA conference, she said the government provides a "huge" growth opportunity on the card acceptance side.

"In the U.S. alone, more than half a trillion dollars of spending occurs at all levels of government - federal, state and municipal," she told the trade group. "And yet, the penetration of payment cards in the government sector remains very small."

Federal and state tax payments total almost $450 billion, but only 1% is paid by card, Ms. Marshall said. Cards represent a mere 2% of the $14 billion collected by motor vehicle agencies around the country, she said.

"As government entities look to reduce costs, they are looking to a variety of payments technologies to provide assistance," she said in her speech. In New Jersey and California, for instance, interactive voice response systems enable people to pay their income taxes over the phone, she said.

Ms. Marshall also pointed to opportunities in recurring payments: bills for Internet service, utilities, or insurance, among others. According to MasterCard research, 56% of consumers would consider recurring payments for other bills.

Before joining MasterCard, Ms. Marshall was an executive vice president at Electronic Payment Services Inc., of Wilmington, Del., the payment processor acquired last year by Concord EFS, a Memphis-based competitor. She was in charge of two EPS subsidiaries: MAC, the regional ATM/debit network; and Buypass, a point of sale processor.

She does not plan to waste that experience at MasterCard, which she thinks had been a bit too content to worry about credit cards at the expense of debit cards. Credit cards, she said, are "low-hanging fruit" that people easily plucked without looking much further, she said.

"I fully understand the growth potential of debit cards, both on-line and off-line," she said. "I think that's the biggest near-term opportunity." She predicts that by 2005 debit will account for the single largest number of payment card transactions.

In anticipation, Ms. Marshall is busy recruiting for a new position, a senior vice president in charge of debit who will report to directly to her. She is reorganizing her staff to dedicate more employee-power to debit cards and e-commerce.

A top priority is improving MasterCard's 20% share of off-line debit cards, which seriously lags Visa's 80%. MasterCard got into the off-line game late, she said, and therefore faces the more difficult job of trying to snatch business away from Visa. But there are "chinks in our competitor's armor," she said, and MasterCard will work to cross-sell debit from existing credit card relationships.

Ms. Marshall also plans to invest resources in developing Maestro, MasterCard's international on-line debit product. As companies merge and more corporations go global, "I think people are going to want to have a form of payment that goes around [the world] as well," she said. There are consultants, she said, that would call off-line debit "an interim product to on-line debit," she said.

Ms. Marshall said she was "content" with her job at EPS/Concord when MasterCard recruited her. She said she knew MasterCard would let her be herself: "bold," "decisive," and outspoken.

She said, "It's critical that banks and associations - with this onslaught of [nontraditional] competitors - become more financially astute, be more competitive, be more compelling."

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