By Stephen Eisenhammer
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - With the president's approval ratings in single digits, Congress crippled by gridlock and party leaders across the board blamed for a recession, one Brazilian politician has at least something going for him: the Olympics.
Rio de Janeiro’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, a feisty 45-year-old fond of blue jeans, draft beer and hobnobbing with foreign dignitaries, is using the Olympic Games next August to burnish his credentials as a hands-on executive and raise his political profile beyond the seaside metropolis.
With little other good news to cheer them, people in this sports-crazed country are taking note of a man some say could emerge as a dark-horse presidential candidate in 2018.
"The Olympics can popularize Paes on a national scale", said Fernando Gabeira, a former Rio Congressman who lost to the mayor when Paes was first elected mayor in 2008.
Along with any upside, however, hosting the Olympics carries plenty of risk.
Much of the city at present is a building site as it races through a 38 billion-real ($10.1 billion) transformation to complete a subway line, highway extension, a light railway, a downtown renovation, and of course dozens of sporting venues.
And criticism already abounds because of polluted water at aquatic venues, forced evictions from slums in the path of construction and so-called "legacy" projects that critics say only benefit real estate speculators and well-off parts of the city.
So far, Paes has navigated the obstacles deftly, dodging the blame for some problems - the state, not the city, is responsible for most of the water cleanup - and with others getting his hands dirty to ensure they are addressed.
In a recent interview with Reuters, Paes dismissed the notion that his political fate is tied to the Olympics.
"It's unfair to me and to the Olympics to say that a successful event means I should be president and an unsuccessful one means I shouldn't."
But he declined to rule out seeking the office.
"Nothing is impossible in politics," he said.
Entering politics in his early 20s, Paes rose from an obscure post in city hall to take a seat in Brazil's Congress in 1999.
An attack dog for the centrist Brazilian Social Democracy Party, or PSDB, he was an outspoken critic of the ruling Workers' Party, or PT.
Later, he switched to the center-right Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) and decided to run for mayor. Needing the PT's support, he quickly mended fences there.
Shortly after taking office in 2009, Rio won its Olympic bid, becoming the first South American city ever awarded the spectacle.
Brazil was riding high at the time because of a commodities boom, and Rio in many ways symbolized its renaissance. Long popular as a party destination, the hope was that Rio could now emerge as the face of a modern, more accomplished Brazil.
Paes proved an enthusiastic ambassador.
With flawless English because of a teen stint as an exchange student in the United States, he showed off the city to high-profile visitors including Barack Obama and Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire media mogul and former mayor of New York.
IN THE TRENCHES
Paes also built a reputation as a competent manager.
His go-getter approach, Olympic officials say, has helped ensure that most preparations are on-budget and on-time - no small feat in a country known for delays and cost overruns, such as those that plagued preparations for the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament.
"He's been in the trenches with us all the time," said Mario Andrada, a spokesman for the local organizing committee.
When the federal government delayed signing a guarantee to reimburse the International Olympic Committee if the Games fell through, Paes persuaded both sides to let the state and city sign instead.
After the city, state and federal governments disagreed over roles at Olympic venues in the suburb of Deodoro, causing construction delays, Paes took responsibility for it even though the money wasn't coming from City Hall.
"He has shown himself to be a very qualified manager," said Augusto Nardes, who leads a federal agency tracking Olympic spending.
For continued electoral success, Paes will need to manage his image, both outside Rio and within the PMDB, a sprawling party with plenty of elders, including current Vice President Michel Temer, with higher ambitions of their own.
The Olympics spotlight, after all, will also shine on other Brazilian politicians who ride into town come showtime.
"Paes will not be the only one," says Ricardo Ismael, a political scientist at Rio's Pontifical Catholic University. "Everyone will be looking to cash in on the Olympics publicity."
And no matter how the Olympics go, Paes would still need to win over an increasingly frustrated electorate.
With its boom now fizzled, Brazil is grappling with recession, rising prices and unemployment and a corruption scandal that has jailed prominent politicians and corporate executives.
Paes' informal style and professed fondness for "choppes", as draft beers are called in Rio, may not sell as well elsewhere in Brazil. Nor would a temper that at times has been known to flare, most famously in 2013, when Paes punched a heckler at a Rio restaurant.
Paes apologized for the incident.
Dressed in jeans, loafers, a baseball cap and an untucked checked shirt last Sunday, Paes rode a bicycle down a ramp at the opening of the Olympics BMX track. He joked with reporters who asked him about the ongoing political crisis.
"What political crisis?" he asked. "I haven't been following."
($1 = 3.75 reais)
(Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer, additional reporting by Rodrigo Viga Gaier and Pedro Fonseca. Editing by Paulo Prada and Kieran Murray)