Bolsonaro, Lula Go on Attack in Debate on Eve of Brazil Vote

(Bloomberg) -- Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and leftist challenger Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva traded insults in a televised debate that marked their final face off before Sunday’s election, with polls giving the opposition leader a wide lead.

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The men went on the attack from the get-go, with Bolsonaro calling Lula a “liar,” “ex-convict” and “gang leader.” The comments drew a fiery response from the 76-year-old Lula, who lobbied his own accusations of corruption at Bolsonaro, saying the president “needs to look in the mirror and know what’s happening in his own government.”

The two leading candidates went back and forth for a few minutes, each earning the right to respond to offenses, before the debate continued. They soon resumed attacking each other while asking questions to other candidates, and were given additional rights to answer to allegations in several occasions.

“I feel bad for disrupting the debate when we could be discussing the future of this country,” Lula said later, after earning yet another right to respond to offenses.

In their final speeches, Lula listed his past economic achievements while Bolsonaro repeated campaign slogans and cited ideological themes, from abortion to drugs and religion.

The meeting, held in Rio de Janeiro and broadcast nationally by Globo TV, started late on Thursday and lasted about three and a half hours. It was the most widely watched of this election cycle, reaching millions of Brazilians just days before the first-round vote on Oct. 2. It was the theme of more than 200 million mentions on social media, according to Felipe Nunes, head of pollster Quaest.

The stakes appeared to be upped before it kicked off, with a survey released by Datafolha, Brazil’s most influential pollster, showing Lula inching closer to an outright win in the first round, for which he needs more than 50% of the vote.

The front-runner has 50% of valid votes in the first round, which excludes null and blank ballots, according to the poll published Thursday evening. Datafolha interviewed 6,800 people across Brazil between Sept. 27 and Sept. 29, and the poll has a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

‘World Cup final’

Lula is focusing his efforts on drawing voters from other candidates at the final stretch of the campaign. He had compared the debate to a soccer World Cup final, according to a campaign adviser.

Read More: Lula Rallies Supporters Seeking Outright Victory in Brazil Vote

The former president canceled all public events ahead of the debate to rest his voice and, as he did prior to other election debates, received media training at a hotel in Rio, according to the adviser who asked not to be identified discussing strategy. The former president was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2011, which at times gives him a husky tone.

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro had planned to step up his attacks on Lula, reminding voters of corruption scandals that happened during his eight-year government, in a bid to ensure the election goes to a second round on Oct. 30, said two people familiar with his plans ahead of the debate.

One or Two Rounds

An outright victory by Lula largely depends on his ability to peel off voters from long-shot presidential contenders.

But third-placed Ciro Gomes, a former governor, and fourth-placed, Simone Tebet, a senator, held their own and registered among the top performers in flash polls and in editorials in major dailys.

Their performance “complicates the late-game migration Lula sought,” brokerage XP Inc. wrote in a report early Friday.

Support for candidates other than Lula and Bolsonaro makes up about 12% of all voting intentions, pollster Quaest has found. Of those, nearly a quarter would be willing to switch their vote to ensure Lula wins in the first round, according to Nunes, the head of Quaest.

The former president would get 50.5% of valid votes, Quaest said on Wednesday after interviewing 2,000 Brazilians between Sept. 24 and 27. Bolsonaro, meanwhile, would get just over 36%. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 2 percentage points.

(Updates with third and fourth-placed candidate performance, analysis beginning in paragraph 13.)

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