By Karolina Tagaris
ATHENS (Reuters) - A grey-haired conservative with a steady "father figure" image has emerged as an unexpectedly strong challenger in Greece's upcoming national elections as voters grow weary of the charismatic young leftist leader Alexis Tsipras.
Tsipras called early elections in August expecting an easy victory. But a slide in popularity is allowing low-key opponent Vangelis Meimarakis to enjoy a spurt of momentum that has brought him within a whisker of winning the Sept. 20 vote.
The 61-year-old veteran politician and former speaker of parliament has kept a low profile since taking over the reins of the conservative New Democracy party in July as an interim leader, and was initially written off as no threat to Tsipras.
But pollsters say his no-nonsense style has made him a safer bet among Greeks wanting a return to stability after years of crisis and who are disillusioned with Tsipras who ultimately accepted the international bailout program he promised to tear up.
"In periods of crisis, voters prefer a fatherly figure," said Thomas Gerakis, head of polling agency Marc, adding that voters felt Meimarakis was more robust than Tsipras.
In one poll last week, Meimarakis was shown as the most popular leader in the country with 44.3 percent approval ratings compared to Tsipras's 41.9 percent - a major reversal for the leftist leader who had enjoyed ratings of over 70 percent earlier in the summer at the height of his bailout battle with foreign creditors.
In another survey, Meimarakis's popularity rose 2.4 percentage points from late August to early September while Tsipras's ratings dropped 1.6 percent in the same period.
As for who would fare better as prime minister, Meimarakis's approval rose 2.1 percent in September from August in contrast to Tsipras's, which fell by 3.3 percent.
He was also preferred over Tsipras in tackling issues other than corruption and tax evasion such as the economy and immigration, said one pollster who declined to be named.
What looked set to be an easy electoral victory for Tsipras has turned into a neck-and-neck race between Greece's two biggest parties, with some polls giving the leftists just a 0.5 percentage-point lead ahead of the conservatives.
"It looked like a walk in a park for Tsipras - there was a chasm between them. But we see now that if one underestimates the other, it will only backfire," Gerakis said.
"I'M NOT FAKE"
Meimarakis has focused his election campaign on an offensive against the 41-year-old Tsipras and is asking voters to consider the cost of the downward economic spiral under the leftist leader.
He has called Tsipras "kiddo" and "a little liar" and during a late-night talk show on Monday attacked the July 5 referendum the leftist leader called on bailout terms as "useless, irrelevant and divisive".
Sometimes facing criticism for being sharp-tongued, he calls this his "spontaneity".
"I'm not fake. I've been in politics for a long time and if you want me, that's good, but if you don't, it's no big deal, we're still friends," he told Star TV on Monday night.
Unlike Tsipras who famously refuses to don a tie, Meimarakis wears one at formal events and for interviews, but has been spotted without on the campaign trail during the hot summer.
"When Meimarakis appears in public without a tie it seems genuine. He dresses as most men would if they went to a taverna in the summer. You don't see men in ties there," said politics professor and analyst Theodore Couloumbis.
"His style is less contrived, more spontaneous, less premeditated, more likely to be believed."
GREECE BELONGS IN EUROPE
But his biggest advantage, however, is that he appears to be a more steady voice on economic issues.
Tsipras passed the bailout through parliament in August thanks to the support of New Democracy and other pro-European bailout parties.
Asked on Monday if he would renegotiate the bailout if he came to power, Meimarakis said: "The country's future is in Europe" and he would to push ahead with privatizations and other fiscal measures to minimize next year's projected recession.
Notably, he has not shied away from saying that he is open to an alliance with Syriza to help steer Greece through its worst post-war economic crisis.
Tsipras, by contrast, has ruled out such an alliance - even though a majority of Greeks want a coalition, polls show.
"Meimarakis wins with his talk of cooperating," Couloumbis said. "He got the message earlier and that's going to help him. Tsipras insists on self-reliance and may pay the price."
On the talk show, Meimarakis acknowledged "difficult months ahead" but unlike Tsipras who saw his party's far-left faction break away after he clinched a bailout deal with the EU and IMF, Meimarakis has managed to unite New Democracy in his short time at its helm.
A founding member of New Democracy's youth wing in 1974, he has been a lawmaker for over two decades and also served as defense minister.
That has allowed Tsipras to accuse his rival of being "the personification of the old-party system. Still, to many voters he gives the impression of being fresh, pollsters say.
"He wasn't a confrontational man who created enemies. He gives the impression of being a new face, at least as party leader," Gerakis said.
(Editing by Deepa Babington and Anna Willard)