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Brazil's Underdog Runs Alone

Ruling-party candidate for president Jose Serra is trying to be all things to the voters, but his leftist opponent only pulls further ahead.

October 24, 2002|Hector Tobar and Paula Gobbi | Times Staff Writers

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Trailing badly in the polls and suffering from an image problem he can't seem to shake, an increasingly isolated Jose Serra is trying a bit of everything in his bid to become Brazil's next president.

A lifelong centrist and technocrat, the ruling-party candidate has sought in recent days to portray himself as an anti-establishment leftist. At the same time, he has clung to the mantle of the incumbent center-right alliance, portraying himself as the candidate of the status quo.

In television ads and interviews, he hints darkly that his challenger in Sunday's runoff vote, the leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, could take Brazil down the path of Argentina, South America's economic basket case, or Venezuela, run by the idiosyncratic populist Hugo Chavez.

"I am afraid," actress Regina Duarte says in one Serra ad, adopting the same melodramatic tone that made her famous in dozens of soap operas. "Afraid of losing all the stability we have fought so hard to achieve. We can't throw everything into the garbage."

None of this, however, seems to have had much of an impact on voters.

Polls in recent days show Serra losing ground to Lula. Unless Serra's fortunes improve quickly, a Lula landslide is possible. One poll last week showed Lula, of the Workers' Party, leading Serra, of the Social Democratic Party of Brazil, 66% to 34%; another had the race only slightly tighter: 64% to 36%.

In the first round of balloting Oct. 6, Lula got about 20 million more votes than Serra, winning 46% to Serra's 23%. Now, Serra must not only win over undecided voters but also persuade some voters leaning toward Lula to switch, said Luiz Lourenco, a political scientist at the University Research Institute of Rio de Janeiro.

"Serra needs to be the anti-Lula," Lourenco said. "That is why Serra needs to run a negative campaign."

At the same time, with about 11 million of Brazil's 174 million people out of work and the economy tumbling, citizens are ready for a change from the pro-market reforms of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who handpicked Serra as his successor.

Last week, in response to the dipping value of the country's currency, the Central Bank of Brazil raised interest rates by 3 percentage points -- a move that was widely unpopular here. Brazil already has one of the world's highest interest rates. Cardoso defended the move.

Serra has tried, unconvincingly to many, to persuade people that he will be different from his mentor, who is prevented by term limits from seeking reelection.

"I am the candidate who is more to the left," he said in an interview last week, making a reference to his own days as a radical student leader, "who would bring more change, who would fight the vested interests."

Compounding Serra's difficulties is his failure to secure the two most important endorsements of the runoff campaign, those of the third- and fourth-place finishers eliminated in the first round: Anthony Garotinho (who took 18%) and Ciro Gomes (who took 12%). Both have announced that they will support Lula.

In Brazil's media, the competing campaigns offer contrasting images of success and distress, analyst Fatima Pacheco Jordao of the daily newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo said.

"Lula is always surrounded by many people, leading big rallies and demonstrations all over the country," she said. "With Serra, it's the opposite. He presents himself as a solitary candidate, always arriving alone to his events. There is no joy in his campaign."

Serra has excoriated Lula for agreeing to only one television debate and has attacked Workers' Party administrations for cutting back social programs in the states and cities they control.

Now some Lula supporters are firing back. The daughter of the actress in the "I am afraid" Serra commercial lashed out at her mother, saying she was "ashamed" anyone would use fear to influence voters.

Lula himself has started responding to Serra's attacks.

"My opponent seems to have lost his sensitivity, that air he had of being a nice guy," Lula remarked last week. "Every day his campaign descends to a lower level The more he lowers his level, the more we are going to raise ours."

*

Tobar reported from Buenos Aires and Gobbi from Rio de Janeiro.

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