Brasilia: Brazil`s presidential race is rapidly shifting gears, with a surge in support for environmentalist Marina Silva sending a threatened Dilma Rousseff, the incumbent, into attack mode with the elections a month away.
The ground has abruptly shifted under Rousseff, who had been the overwhelming favorite to win, since the August 13 death of Socialist Party candidate Eduardo Campos in a plane crash.
Campos` death catapulted his running mate, Silva, into the race and suddenly Rousseff was faced with a fresh contender who polls showed would defeat her in a run-off by 10 points.
The first round of the elections are scheduled for October 5, with a run-off likely on October 26.
On Monday night, in the contest`s second televised debate, Rousseff elected to go after Silva`s jugular, calling into question her ability to pay for her myriad campaign promises.
If she can regain the initiative and win, Rousseff could give the Workers Party (PT) a fourth straight poll triumph -- she succeeded popular two-term president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2011.
Silva, born into a family of poor rubber tappers, served as environment minister for five years under Lula.
Meanwhile, social democrat Aecio Neves, trailing both women in third place, is taking a more conciliatory tack as he positions himself for a potential post-vote alliance.
Having last year failed to gain enough signatures to stand as the candidate of her "sustainabilty network" Silva threw in her lot with the Socialist Party (PSB), and since taking the torch from Campos has raced to parity in voter intentions.
Both women are now running at 34 percent but polls show Silva as winning a run-off by a ten percent margin.
"Today, Marina is making the news in the election and is very competitive. In two weeks, everything changed. A month hence, anything can happen," political analyst Andre Cesar of the Prospectiva consultancy told AFP.
"Dilma was right on top of (Silva)" in Monday`s debate, Cesar said.
"She is going to go on the offensive ... as that is the only way to defeat her -- though it could boomerang," he noted as Rousseff`s administration battles an economic recession her rivals largely blame on the government.
Rousseff used the debate to ask Silva how she would fund a raft of policies -- the latter notably wants to invest 10 percent of GDP in education and also boost health spending; in all she has unveiled a mammoth $60 billion of policy commitments.
Whereas Silva at the weekend rowed back on support for gay marriage -- the evangelical Christian has since reiterated her backing for civil unions -- Rousseff on Monday underlined her unequivocal support for the former while criminalizing homophobic behavior.
"Rousseff is going to look for areas where Marina could have problems," says Cesar.
Those areas include "economic policy, her relations as an ecologist with agro business" -- a powerful sector with which Silva`s running mate Beto Albuquerque has strong links.
Social democrat Neves also has to think about making post-poll alliances to ensure his party takes a share of the spoils.
"He will have to measure carefully his attacks on Marina given that he could be an ally to help her win the run-off," says US-born analyst David Fleischer of the University of Brasilia.
Aecio "will have to be measured in his attacks and perhaps seek to position himself closer to Marina," Cesar believes.
Silva stood for the Green Party in 2010 and came third with a respectable 20 percent vote share.Silva was one of few politicians not to see her image take a hit during the mass demonstrations of June last year.
An electorate demanding more investment in health, education and transport in particular is generally fed up with politicians and parties of all stripes.
"Marina Silva is evidently gaining support from voters who initially preferred Rousseff or Neves but who are among the 70 percent of the population wanting real change," says Fleischer.
Silva is gaining ground in the southeast, where both Sao Paulo and Rio are located and which were major centers of protest last year and Cesar sees her as "the "alternative" many are willing to take a chance on.
Rousseff retains support in the poorer north east which has gained from her party`s social welfare programs which were a major reason for Lula`s earlier successes.
"The most recent polls show the `Marina phenomenon` is not just in reaction to the death of Campos but that she is here to stay," says Fleischer.
"If Marina keeps on gaining ground at Rousseff`s expense she could win in the first round."