By Cris Chinaka
MUTARE, Zimbabwe (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's sole television station, state-owned and tightly controlled by President Robert Mugabe, is targeting the private life of his arch rival Morgan Tsvangirai with "attack ads" aimed at discrediting him before July 31 elections.
In the adverts, three former lovers reveal how they were dumped by Tsvangirai, 61, before Mugabe's ZANU-PF party chimes in to tell voters that the prime minister is unfit for office.
While there are many questions about the tone and taste of the adverts in the socially conservative southern African nation, the message is rubbing off on even die-hard Tsvangirai supporters, who say he has only himself to blame.
"Five years ago, I would have risked my life for Tsvangirai. I would have assaulted anyone who insulted him," said Gerald Mlambo in the eastern city of Mutare, a Tsvangirai stronghold.
Now Mlambo is sufficiently racked by doubts to stay away from a nearby stadium where deafening music and a huge crowd chanting anti-Mugabe slogans are revving up for a campaign rally appearance by his one-time idol.
Tsvangirai's sex scandals, along with his failure to deliver on key promises while in government, have steadily eroded the almost messianic support he once enjoyed among many of Zimbabwe's 13 million people for daring to challenge the three-decade rule of the ruthless and cunning Mugabe.
Since the death of Tsvangirai's wife Susan in a car crash in 2009 - the year after he and Mugabe sealed a power sharing deal - the prime minister has fathered a child with a 22-year-old woman and been locked in a court battle with another lover.
The Harare media also feasted on the claims of a South African woman who said Tsvangirai ditched her by SMS after a two-year affair studded with expensive, exotic holidays.
Tsvangirai's supporters point out that Mugabe, 89, has also been no angel in his personal life, having fathered two children out of wedlock with Grace Mugabe, a secretary 41 years his junior whom he married after the death of his first wife, Sally.
But Tsvangirai's troubled private life has been a gift to propagandists working to ensure Mugabe carries on as president, a post he has held since independence from Britain in 1980.
For the prime minister's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the campaign ads merely serve as proof that Mugabe and ZANU-PF have nothing to offer the country.
"They are desperate," MDC spokesman Douglas Mwonzora said. "Thank God, no one is listening and people are going to dump them come July 31 because our country needs politicians and leaders who focus on policies."
But Tsvangirai faces criticism over his track record too, after five years as prime minister in the South Africa-brokered unity government under Mugabe that followed the bloody and disputed 2008 election.
His first promise was to end an economic crisis that had triggered inflation of 500 billion percent, unemployment of 80 percent and a stream of economic refugees into South Africa, Zimbabwe's larger southern neighbor.
On that front, he has largely delivered: scrapping the worthless Zimbabwe dollar in early 2009 stabilized prices and since then the economy has bounced back strongly.
But as memories of the economic meltdown have faded and the grind of day-to-day government has set in, the former trade unionist has lost some of his shine.
MDC-headed ministries have struggled to deliver promised dams and electricity plants and to overhaul dilapidated water and sewage systems, while the questions have mounted about Tsvangirai's character and ability to govern.
"They promised so much and delivered so little. I don't buy the nonsense that ZANU-PF is to blame for our condition," said John Cheukai, a 40-year-old laborer at a Mutare timber firm.
"Tsvangirai has a responsibility to manage his life in an exemplary manner. Based on some of the things we have seen from the MDC, people are not so hopeful anymore."
While there are no formal opinion polls, surveys conducted by Freedom House, a U.S. political think tank, and African research group Afro-Barometer give Mugabe a narrow lead.
Critics say Tsvangirai is woolly on policy and weak on principles, pointing to how readily he dropped opposition to Mugabe's homophobia and seizure of white-owned farms, and how he took up the fight for media and security reform only weeks before the election.
His lieutenants argue Tsvangirai has taken the strategic view of pushing through a new constitution that balances power between the president and parliament, while parking other issues on the sidelines until the MDC comes to power.
The path to power remains far from assured.
"The MDC ran most of the local councils very badly," said 50-year-old financial analyst Boniface Chirandu in the town of Chimanimani on the Mozambican border.
"That, coupled with issues over Tsvangirai's private life, has persuaded me - and I'm sure others too - that the MDC cannot take our vote for granted."
(Editing by Gareth Jones)