By Anthony Boadle
BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil's 2014 election season got off to an unusually early start this week with the unofficial launch of President Dilma Rousseff's re-election campaign by her mentor and predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Celebrating his Workers' Party's 10th year in power, Lula laid to rest speculation that he would run again by anointing Rousseff as the party's best option to stay in power.
The main opposition party PSDB went on the offensive and attacked the decade of Workers' Party (PT) rule for undoing its work in laying the basis for Brazil's financial stability under former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
"They can get ready, they can organize, but our reply will be the re-election of Dilma in 2014," Lula said on Wednesday in a packed Sao Paulo hotel ballroom.
The day before, Rousseff announced that she has almost met her promise to eradicated extreme poverty by expanding social programs started by Lula. She spoke under a banner that looked decidedly like a campaign slogan: "Ending poverty is only the beginning.
Despite her failure to match the rapid economic growth enjoyed by Lula, Rousseff's popularity is in the high 70s and she is facing weak opposition. Barring a major scandal in her government or an economic downturn that brings high inflation and unemployment, she is seen as the odds-on favorite to win the 2014 vote.
Rousseff has vowed to continue the PT's social plans aimed at improving the quality of life of Brazil's poor, though her government has turned to private business to help rebuild the country's dilapidated infrastructure. Some of her policy moves, such as in the energy sector, have shaken investor confidence.
A PSDB victory in 2014 would restore more liberal policies that laid the ground for economic stability in the 1990s.
Rousseff's most likely opponent, PSDB Senator Aecio Neves, accused her of putting more effort into her re-election than governing the nation.
Neves took to the Senate floor on Wednesday to attack her, saying she had not delivered economic and industrial expansion, failed to draw investment that Brazil badly needs to upgrade its dilapidated infrastructure and undermined Brazil's fiscal credibility by juggling some government accounts.
He also criticized Rousseff for "destroying" state companies like Petrobras and Eletrobras that suffered big falls in share prices due her government's delay in raising gasoline prices and by forcing a cut in electricity rates on power generators.
ALREADY DUKING IT OUT
Under Brazilian electoral law, campaigning is not allowed until three months before the October 5, 2014 election. But the two main parties have good reason to start brawling early.
"By putting Dilma out there, Lula is uniting the party and the governing coalition around her re-election, while silencing rumors about him wanting to run again," said Joao Augusto Castro Neves, an analyst with Eurasia Group in Washington.
By launching Rousseff's re-election campaign, the PT is also pre-empting negative media attention it will likely get when three of the party's leaders are sent to jail this year in Brazil's biggest political corruption scandal over bribes to congressmen during the early days of Lula's first term.
The opposition PSDB will have its work cut out trying to defeat Rousseff, and needed to take the offensive early.
The first to do so was former president Cardoso, who released a video on Tuesday attacking the PT.
"They think Brazil started now, but that's not true. In my government I changed the course of Brazil," Cardoso said.
A THIRD CANDIDATE?
The PSDB's chances against Rousseff could improve with the entry of a third candidate with a lot of votes, such as former presidential candidate Marina Silva.
A founding member of the PT who resigned as Rousseff's environment minister due to policy differences regarding deforestation, Silva founded the Green Party and won 20 million votes to come in third in the 2010 presidential election.
Last weekend she announced the formation of a new party, the Sustainability Network, with the intention of running again as an alternative to the two leading parties. Silva has to gather half a million signatures to establish the party and it is not clear whether she can retain the support she had in 2010.
"I am skeptical. Her party seems like a non-party with no clear message," said Castro Neves. "She has environmental credentials, which will draw the green vote, but she is also a hard-core evangelical who is against abortion."
Another possible spoiler is Eduardo Campos, the governor of Pernambuco state and leader of Brazil's fastest growing party, the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB).
The center-left PSB is a member of Rousseff's governing coalition of 17 parties, but could break away for a presidential bid by Campos, an effective administrator who has drawn foreign investment in big industrial projects in his fast-growing state.
Some members of his party think that would be premature and say Campos, who is only 47, should wait until 2018.
During a speech to mayors in his home state on Thursday, Campos was interrupted several times by cries of "presidente."
He told local media that Brazil's future has nothing to gain from the "old feud" between the PT and the PSDB, suggesting that the country needs a different kind of leader.
(Editing by Jim Loney)