JUIZ DE FORA (BRAZIL) - The race for Brazil's October elections formally opened Tuesday, with dueling campaign events by far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva highlighting the South American giant's deep divides.
Front-runners Bolsonaro and Lula, who have in reality been on the campaign trail for months, made it official on opening day with rival events showcasing their polar-opposite styles.
Bolsonaro, 67, launched his campaign with a rally in Juiz de Fora, the small southeastern city where an attacker stabbed and nearly killed him during his 2018 campaign -- cementing his image in the minds of die-hard supporters as their "Messias," or Messiah, his middle name.
"This is where I was reborn. I thank the love of God for saving me.... This is where the creator saved my life so I could give my best for our nation as president," an emotional Bolsonaro told cheering supporters packed into the street where the stabbing occurred.
In an update to his 2018 stump speech, the ex-army captain acknowledged Brazil's "serious problems," but called himself the best candidate to lead the country, hitting hard on the themes of Christianity, family values and opposition to "communism" and "gender ideology."
He drew his loudest cheers when he handed the mic to beaming, telegenic First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro, a devout Evangelical Christian who called his campaign "one more miracle from God." She then led the crowd in prayer.
Bolsonaro's image as a savior swooping in to rough up the political establishment has suffered as he has lurched through a series of crises, from the coronavirus pandemic -- which he insistently downplayed, even as Brazil's death toll surged -- to soaring inflation that is hurting Brazilian families.
But there was no lost enthusiasm at his rally, where the crowd chanted, "Lula, thief, you belong in jail!"
"I want to continue the clean-up that started four years ago. I want the left to be eradicated from this country," said 50-year-old teacher Jaqueline Lopes, who made the three-hour drive from Rio de Janeiro to attend.
- 'Fake' polls -
Lula, 76, will meanwhile start his campaign with a visit to a Volkswagen plant in Sao Bernardo do Campo, in the industrial heartland of Sao Paulo state, where he launched his political career as a union leader.
Security has been tight around Bolsonaro and Lula, both of whom regularly appear at events in bullet-proof vests.
Lula currently leads with 44 percent of the vote to 32 percent for Bolsonaro, according to the latest poll from the Ipec institute, published Monday.
Not that Bolsonaro supporters put much stock in such surveys.
"Polls are in the street," said Bolsonaro backer Marcio Bargiona, a 55-year-old retired policeman, gesturing to the tightly packed crowd in Juiz de Fora.
"The other candidate has polls on paper, which everyone knows are paid for -- they're fake."
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of valid votes in the October 2 election, a runoff will be held on October 30.
The country of 213 million people has been torn in a two-way race since March last year, when Brazil's Supreme Court annulled a controversial corruption conviction that had sent Lula to jail and sidelined him from politics.
The ex-president (2003-2010) left office as the most popular leader in Brazilian history, after presiding over an economic boom that helped lift some 30 million people from poverty.
But he fell spectacularly from grace when he became a target in "Operation Car Wash," a massive investigation into systematic corruption centered on state-run oil company Petrobras.
Lula, who denies wrongdoing, calls the case a trumped-up bid to topple his legacy.
Bolsonaro is counting on a big new welfare program to boost his popularity and close the gap with Lula.
Many Brazilians fear if Bolsonaro loses he will follow in the footsteps of his political role model, former US President Donald Trump, and try to fight the result.
Bolsonaro, who regularly blasts alleged fraud in Brazil's electronic voting system -- without evidence -- is fond of saying his reelection bid can have only three outcomes: "prison, death or victory."
The two candidates could cross paths later in the day, at a ceremony in Brasilia to install the new head of the Superior Electoral Tribunal.
Both Bolsonaro and Lula are invited.