Conceptions about Lula have changed, in no small measure, thanks to recent gains made by the Workers' Party, which Lula helped found in the 1970s, when he was a trade union organizer.
Party candidates have won local elections in several large cities and states, earning reputations as good administrators. Recently, the party came to power in Belo Horizonte, a city of 2 million people about 60 miles northwest of here.
"Once the Workers' Party was in government, people could see that the old worries didn't make any sense," Da Gama said. "The party is running Belo Horizonte, and the world hasn't come to an end."
Of Brazil's 26 states, Minas Gerais was one of three that gave Lula a majority early this month in the first round of voting. Nationwide, Lula won 46%, while Serra won 23% and beat out two center-left candidates for a spot in the runoff.
In Ouro Preto, Lula won 64% of the vote. Both here, and in Minas Gerais as a whole, Lula won more than double his vote in the 1994 and 1998 elections. Analysts say Lula has reaped the benefits of making a local conservative business leader, Jose Alencar, his running mate.
"I think it's a case of the Workers' Party moving closer to the ideas of the Brazilian people rather than the Brazilian people embracing the [old] Workers' Party program," Da Gama said.
The party platform has moved to the center. Although Lula has continued to sharply criticize the "neo-liberalism" of current President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's government -- which embraced fiscal austerity and free-market trade policies -- he has stopped short of calling for a complete break with the past.
Most notably, Lula has said Brazil should continue to make payments on its massive foreign debt.
Suelia Maria Pena, a 33-year-old owner of an Internet cafe here, is precisely the kind of small entrepreneur one might expect to vote for Serra. "Brazil improved a lot under Fernando Henrique," who is barred by law from running again and who handpicked Serra to be his successor.
"We have economic stability now, and even the lives of poor people improved a little," she said.
But she doesn't trust Serra and the mostly middle-class leaders of his Brazilian Social Democratic Party to address the country's wide gap between rich and poor.
"Yes, voting for Lula is a risk," she said. "But voting for Serra is a risk too."
She worries about the country's fiscal crisis, the pressure from foreign creditors and a recession that has left about 11 million people out of work.
"We need more change in this country," she said.
"I see Lula as a serious man, a person with integrity. He might not have much schooling, but he's a fighter."