At first glance, she seems fragile, affable and soft-spoken, hardly the stuff of which presidential candidates are normally made. But when Heloisa Helena Lima de Moraes starts to talk, her words are harsh and accusatory, filled with fire and brimstone, especially as regards her former comrade-in-arms, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
With Brazilians scheduled to go to the polls on Oct. 1 to elect a president, de Moraes has become the wild card in what was initially expected to be a two-man race.
Polls show da Silva, the incumbent, falling just short of the 50 percent of the vote he needs for a first-round victory, with his main opponent, Geraldo Alckmin of the center-left Brazilian Social Democratic Party, lagging far behind at less than 30 percent.
With about 10 percent of the electorate supporting her, de Moraes, a 44-year-old leftist known throughout Brazil simply as Heloisa Helena, appears to have no chance of winning herself.
But da Silva's strategists in the governing Workers' Party worry that she will win just enough votes from voters dissatisfied with the corruption that has flourished during his administration to force an unwelcome and unpredictable runoff in the middle of next month.
In her speeches, de Moraes, the candidate of the Party of Socialism and Freedom, heaps scorn on both her main opponents, describing them as "messenger boys for financial capital" who represent "two sides of the same filthy coin."
But she has concentrated the bulk of her attacks on da Silva, a onetime ally whom she now accuses of "arrogance and political cowardice."
"I don't want to say anything more about that fellow," she said on Sunday when questioned by reporters while campaigning here in the president's home state in northeastern Brazil.
"I want the chance to debate him up close, in a civilized fashion, so that he can be unmasked. Let him come down from his little throne and debate so that we can discuss alternatives for Brazil's development," she said.
Until 2003, de Moraes was a member of the Workers' Party, which da Silva, a 60-year-old former labor leader, founded in 1980. But she was expelled in what she has called "an inquisition" because she refused to submit to party discipline and support economic policies that she considered a betrayal of the party's left-wing principles.
Like da Silva, de Moraes is a native of northeastern Brazil, a nine-state region of more than 50 million that is the country's poorest and most backward area and comes from a similar background of privation and perseverance. She was born barely 160km from da Silva's hometown, and her father, who died when she was an infant, was, like da Silva, also nicknamed Lula.
Raised by her mother, a seamstress, de Moraes attended a prestigious Roman Catholic girls' school on a scholarship and then studied nursing at a university in her home state of Alagoas, just south of here. In 1998, after serving in the state legislature, she was elected to the Senate in Brasmlia.
A fervent Catholic who opposes abortion and stem cell research, de Moraes describes herself as a Socialist, but one whose creed is based less on Marx and Lenin than on the Bible.
"There it says that either you serve love or money," she argues, adding that those who follow the path of wealth will be fated to "roast as barbecue in the flames of hell."
In a recent essay, Joao de Souza Martins, a professor of sociology at the University of Sao Paulo, linked de Moraes to a long Brazilian tradition of mystical religious prophets from the hinterlands "raising the millenarian banner of a kingdom of liberty, justice and abundance."
That has made her a lightning rod for discontent of all sorts, among groups that include the peasants here and the urban middle class in the more prosperous south.
"Her indignation at the perverse effects of the current economy, with the manipulations of power, with corruption and the delay in the redemption of the poor, is the indignation of millions of voters," he wrote. "They are the ones who feel deceived by a guiding star who, in fact, has not transported Brazil to a new era of snug tranquility."
To sharpen the contrast between herself and the two main candidates, de Moraes is campaigning on a shoestring. She takes commercial flights rather than a private plane, sleeps in supporters' homes rather than in hotels, wears blue jeans and a plain white blouse at public events and refuses to accept contributions from corporations.
"I don't have Air Lula or a private jet," she tells crowds when she has to cut short a speech to catch a plane. "I am like all of you, a backlands woman who has to struggle to get by."
What her campaign lacks in financing or organization, she compensates with personal warmth. On the stump, de Moraes is highly tactile, offering hugs, kisses and embraces for voters and addressing the reporters who question her on televised news programs as "my love," "my flower" and other endearments.
"She has a talent for approximation that allows her to get close to people, and for people to want to get close to her, without all the security apparatus the other candidates have," said Manoel Henrique de Melo Santana, a Roman Catholic priest, friend and occasional spiritual adviser.
Da Silva may be offering himself as the "father of the poor," Santana added, "but maybe what the people want is a mother."
Last Sunday, de Moraes came to this small farming town to take part in a religious pilgrimage honoring an Italian friar whom many Brazilians regard as a saint.
She was mobbed by well-wishers who shouted out phrases like "hit 'em hard, woman" as she climbed and then descended the hill that houses the sanctuary.
"Lula is going to win, but I am going to vote for her anyway," Antelio Ramos da Silva, a retired farm worker, said after he and his wife embraced the candidate.
"She's a fighter and she's honest, and that's just what we need to clean up that nest of corruption in Brasmlia," he said.
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