SAO PAULO Brazilian opposition candidate Jose Serra missed a chance to catch up in the presidential race Sunday when the potentially influential Green Party decided to stay neutral and he failed to land any major blows in a televised debate.
The former Sao Paulo state governor has been gaining ground on ruling party candidate Dilma Rousseff since he narrowly survived a first-round vote this month, but he still trails in polls two weeks ahead of the October 31 runoff.
In the second televised debate since the October 3 first round, Rousseff and Serra sparred over privatization and infrastructure policy but mostly avoided the heated personal accusations that spiced up their first one-on-one debate.
Rousseff, the former chief of staff to popular President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, persistently tried to portray Serra and his centrist PSDB party as risking Brazil's economic prosperity by planning to privatize state assets.
"I want to know if the candidate will return to the process of privatization that we took firms out of," said Rousseff, the 62-year-old candidate for the left-leaning Workers' Party who would be Brazil's first woman elected president.
Portraying the PSDB as the "privatization" party proved a successful strategy for Lula four years ago when he beat PSDB candidate Geraldo Alckmin in the runoff election.
Serra, 68, denied having any agenda for privatization, accusing Rousseff's campaign of "lying all the time for election purposes."
"An election comes around and the Workers' Party brings up the subject of privatization that has nothing to do with Brazil's real problems," said Serra, whose debate performance was solid but may not have been enough to win swing voters.
The presidential race has narrowed in recent polls, with one showing a statistical dead heat. But Rousseff remains the favorite and still has a lead of about 6-7 points in most polls.
The candidates notably avoided discussing religious values and particularly the issue of abortion -- a sign that the campaign may be moving away from faith issues.
Rousseff's past support for more abortion rights apparently lost her votes in the first round after evangelical Christian and Roman Catholic leaders told followers not to vote for her.
Serra has also attacked her for changing her stance on abortion. Saturday he issued a statement denying a report that his wife had once had the procedure.
GREEN PARTY NEUTRAL
Serra lost another potential chance to gain on Rousseff earlier Sunday when the Green Party opted to remain neutral in the presidential runoff, preferring to leverage its 19 percent support to advance the environmental agenda.
Former candidate Marina Silva said neutrality will give the Green Party more influence ahead of the runoff.
"We should place ourselves in a position as moderators," said Silva, a former environment minister in Lula's government and renowned Amazon defender who finished a strong third in first round.
Both Rousseff and Serra have aggressively courted Silva since she emerged as a potential kingmaker, but the soft-spoken Silva hinted earlier that she was unlikely to endorse either candidate.
Serra probably needs to pick up the lion's share of Silva's voters to have a chance of overtaking Rousseff.
The Workers' Party was never confident of winning over Green Party support.
Silva, who garnered 19 percent of the vote in the first round, told Reuters Friday that the aggressive tone of the campaign has prevented both Rousseff and Serra from discussing Brazil's problems in depth.
(Additional reporting by Carmen Munari and Stuart Grudgings; Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Stacey Joyce)