By Anthony Boadle
BRASILIA (Reuters) - The Brazilian economy is hardly growing and inflation is rearing its head, but President Dilma Rousseff's popularity continues to climb to new highs.
The personal approval rating of Brazil's first woman president rose to 79 percent in March from 78 percent in December, according to a CNI/Ibope opinion poll released on Tuesday.
The number of Brazilians who say they trust her leadership climbed two points to 75 percent of those polled, and 63 percent of them view her government as good or very good, up from 62 percent in December.
Once-booming Brazil grew a meager 0.9 percent last year, dropping behind Britain to seventh largest economy in the world.
While Rousseff's efforts to revive growth with tax breaks and public spending have so far failed to bear fruit, pollsters say Brazilians are more concerned with having a job and access to consumer goods. Rousseff's popularity is buoyed by record low unemployment and unabated consumer spending, they say.
Inflation, though, is gaining speed and could derail Rousseff's re-election plans for 2014 if not curbed. The country is still haunted by the memory of the hyperinflation of two decades ago. In February, the rate of inflation as measured by the consumer price index hit 6.3 percent, a 14-month high.
But Rousseff has taken measures that directly benefit the pockets of average Brazilians: she has brought down the prices of electricity and food staples this year.
"For the average Brazilian, the economy is doing quite well: inflation is relatively low, jobs are still being created and access to credit is still fairly good," said University of Brasilia political science professor David Fleischer.
As long as those indicators remain strong, Rousseff will continue to be popular, Fleischer said.
In fact, she is now better liked by Brazilians than her widely popular predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. For the first time in the quarterly CNI/Ibope polls, more people said they preferred Rousseff's government to that of Lula, Brazil's first working class president.
In a country where politicians are viewed as serving their own interests, Rousseff quickly gained a reputation for not tolerating corruption by removing six ministers in her first year in office due to graft allegations. She emerged unscathed from corruption scandals involving aides to ex-president Lula, founder of the ruling Worker's Party (PT).
The increases in Rousseff's popularity are within the two percentage point margin of error of the March 8-11 poll of 2,002 people.
Rousseff made her most significant gains in approval in the poor, drought-stricken Northeast of Brazil, a region that was once a solid bastion of PT support, but which has seen the rapid rise of a possible election rival, Eduardo Campos of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB).
(Additional reporting by Maria Carolina Marcello; Editing by Steve Orlofsky; and Peter Galloway)