Ahead in Brazil polls, Rousseff cruises in debate

Dilma Rousseff is President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva`s ex-chief of staff.

Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian ruling party candidate Dilma Rousseff on Thursday sailed through the last TV debate before Sunday`s Presidential Election, bolstered by another poll showing her with just enough support to win in the first round.

Rousseff, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva`s former chief of staff, faced few real challenges from her three main rivals in a mostly uneventful debate on TV Globo, the country`s largest and most influential television network.

Unlike in other debates in this campaign, there was no mention of recent ethics scandals involving Rousseff`s Workers` Party. Rousseff`s closest rival, Jose Serra of the opposition PSDB party, mentioned in passing a vote-buying scandal that rocked the Lula government in 2005 but largely steered clear of attacking the frontrunner.

What`s more, Rousseff and Serra did not engage each other directly at all in the late-night debate in which all four candidates failed to showcase the kind of charisma that Brazilians have become accustomed to under the wildly popular Lula, who cannot run for a third straight term.

Serra and the other two opposition candidates -- Marina Silva of the Green Party and Plinio de Arruda Sampaio of a small socialist party -- all sought to link Rousseff to the Lula government`s shortcomings, ranging from shabby healthcare to a chronic housing deficit.

Silva, who has gained a few points in recent opinion polls at Rousseff`s expense, looked emboldened at times, confidently challenging Serra`s record at improving housing for the poor when he was governor of Sao Paulo state.

Serra seemed to stick to a campaign strategy that has proven ineffective so far -- avoiding remarks that could be construed as aggressive, which his aides fear would irk Brazilian voters.

Rousseff, for her part, was careful to tout the Lula government`s achievements at every turn, clearly mindful of polls showing that most Brazilians want more of the same.

"My goal is to make Brazil a developed country," she said.

Before the debate, a survey by polling firm Datafolha showed the career civil servant with 52 percent of valid votes, down from a peak of 57 percent two weeks ago but above the 50 percent threshold she needs to avoid a runoff on October 31.

Serra has struggled to sell his message "Brazil can do better" amid the strongest economic expansion in three decades. He had 31 percent of valid votes in the latest Datafolha poll, slipping from 32 percent.

TV Globo reaches the most distant corners of this continent-sized country with the biggest audience of any network, although the debate`s timing after the nightly soap opera show may have put off many viewers.

The final debate has been seen as potentially important ever since a poor performance by Lula in 1989 turned the tide in favour of rival Fernando Collor de Mello in Brazil`s first direct presidential elections after the end of military rule.

Lula lost to Collor then, the first of three elections the former metalworker would lose before winning in 2002. Since then, Brazil has cast off its reputation of being unstable and become one of the world`s fastest-growing emerging markets.

Bureau Report