By Maximiliano Rizzi and Sarah Marsh
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - When Mauricio Macri, the conservative opposition challenger in Argentina's presidential race, unveiled a statue of the late working class hero Juan Peron it signaled a late shift in campaign strategy: a push to attract moderate Peronist voters.
For months, Macri distanced himself from Peronism, the fragmented political movement which has dominated Argentine politics for 70 years, promising to liberalize the economy and stamp out a deep-seated culture of graft and nepotism.
But just days away from the election, the "Let's Change" alliance leader is under pressure. His support has fallen and he cannot be sure of forcing front-runner Daniel Scioli of the Peronist ruling party into a run-off vote.
Third-placed Sergio Massa has also staged a comeback, weakening Macri's bid to present himself as the only alternative to the government-backed Scioli in the Oct. 25 vote.
In need of more votes, the 56-year-old Macri has been forced to go head-to-head with Massa, a Peronist who defected from the ruling party two years ago.
"I am not a Peronist but I have social justice in my heart," Macri said as he unveiled the statue of Peron last week. "I want to invite all Peronists to work with us to create the Argentina we all dream about."
Peron served three terms as Argentina's president and earned himself hero status for his fiery nationalism and defense of worker rights in the 1940s.
Since then, Peronism has become an ideological grab bag spanning the communist left to the neoliberal right and it retains a strong hold over Argentines. Peronist parties have won nine of the eleven presidential elections they have contested.
Fulvio Pompeo, a Macri campaign coordinator, said Macri's priority in this campaign had been to consolidate his support base within his "Let's Change" alliance following party primaries in August and that "now we have to set about working with as wide a focus as possible".
Despite his slide in the polls, Macri is still in the hunt for the presidency. He has a good chance of taking second place and, if he can force a second round, Scioli could be vulnerable to a united opposition.
To avoid a runoff, Scioli needs 45 percent of votes, or 40 percent and a 10 point margin over his nearest rival in the first round. A Poliarquia poll this week projected he has between 38.5 to 41 percent support, with Macri on 27.5 to 30 percent and Massa 21 to 23.5 percent.
It is not clear if Massa, who once served as Fernandez's cabinet chief before splitting with her, would back Macri in a second round and whether that would be enough for him to beat Scioli.
Some Peronist voters fed up with President Cristina Fernandez's leftist populism and the ailing economy are listening to Macri.
"Macri understands he can't win unless he has us thinking Peronists on his side," said retired head-teacher Mariela Farias, a long-time Peronist militant who will now vote Macri.
Even so, Macri's late shift in the campaign has lacked concrete policy proposals and also diluted his credentials as the candidate for change, said political analyst Graciela Romer.
"It seems more like electoral opportunism," she said.
Macri kicked off his campaign promising to free-up Latin America's third largest economy from capital controls and trade restrictions from his first day in office, to draw in foreign dollars and end double-digit inflation.
In contrast, Scioli plans to maintain Fernandez's hefty social spending and making only gradual reforms to address the economy's structural imbalances.
Macri's support levels fell after a prominent party ally was embroiled in a graft scandal, undermining his promise to end endemic corruption.
He has also had limited success in connecting with the poor. His open-market reforms are a tough sell outside the urban middle class in a country where Peronist leaders have long protected national industry and worker rights.
Macri has rowed back on his criticism of nationalizations under Fernandez, but his opponents play up voter fears that he will put investors' interests ahead of people's needs and they mock his recent efforts to woo moderate Peronists.
"'Let's Change' chose its name well, because it spends all its time changing according to what suits most at that moment," quipped Marcelo Corti, a Massa ally running for Congress.
(Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Richard Lough and Kieran Murray)