SAO PAULO (AP) — President Dilma Rousseff and her rival in the Oct. 26 runoff election face off Tuesday night in their first debate since the opening round ballot, a crucial confrontation with recent opinion polls showing the pair locked in a dead heat.
Challenger Aecio Neves was expected to hammer at a growing kickback scandal at Brazil's state-run oil company Petrobras, which has seen its market value plummet in recent years amid disappointing progress in exploring offshore reserves. Neves says it is indicative of government mismanagement.
Rousseff was likely to hit at Neves' elite upbringing and continue her campaign message that he would govern for the rich and shrink popular social welfare programs installed during the 12 years of Workers' Party rule, cash-transfer programs that have helped yank millions out of poverty.
"Besides presenting their proposals, what they really want is to 'deconstruct' the image of one another," said Pedro Fassoni Arruda, a political scientist at Pontifical Catholic University in Sao Paulo.
Rousseff wants to "show the accomplishments of her government, that the level of employment and purchasing power is very high," while trying to defend against Neves' main criticism "on corruption scandals at the federal level."
Neves made a surprising comeback in the Oct. 5 first-round vote, surpassing former environment minister Marina Silva to win the second-highest number of votes. That put him into the runoff with Rousseff, who didn't get the outright majority needed to avoid a second ballot.
In the first round, Rousseff won 42 percent of the vote against Neves' 34 percent.
Neves' Social Democracy Party held the presidency from 1995 until 2003, a period of intense economic turbulence in Brazil but during which the so-called Real Plan was introduced that created a new currency, tamed hyperinflation and privatized money-losing state-run enterprises.
Neves wants to shrink the government's role in Brazil's economy and open the country up to more trade, particularly with the U.S. and Europe. Rousseff has expanded the state's reach and role in the economy with large infrastructure programs and she maintains trade barriers to protect fledgling Brazilian industry.
Rousseff's ad campaign is warning lower middle class and poor Brazilians that the tenuous economic gains they've made in recent years will disappear under his government.
Neves, a former two-term governor in Brazil's second-biggest state who left office in 2010 with a 92 percent approval rating, has strongly denied he would cut the popular social welfare programs.
Associated Press writer Brad Brooks in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.