CARACAS (Reuters) - In Venezuela’s presidential election, everyone wants to look like Lula.
Both candidates are turning to Brazilian consultants in an attempt to borrow from Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s popular leftist model and political style as they gush admiration for the former metalworker who led Brazil from 2003-2010.
Like him, they want to court centrist voters, do business with the United States and with China, oversee economic growth, cut poverty and fund robust welfare programs.
With the October 7 election shaping up to be Venezuela’s closest in years, the teams behind President Hugo Chavez and his rival, Henrique Capriles, have hired stars from Brazil’s booming political marketing industry, known for its slick campaign spots.
Veteran campaigner Joao Santana, 59, joined Chavez’s operation a few months ago, while the younger pairing of Renato Pereira and Francisco ‘Chico’ Mendez have worked with the opposition’s candidate Capriles since the start of the year.
Fighting for the middle ground, Lula-style, is likely to be the crucial battle of the Venezuelan election. Although most polls give Chavez a double-digit lead over Capriles, they also show that up to a third of voters are undecided.
Lula himself dived into the race on Friday, warmly endorsing his friend Chavez in a video played at the Forum of Sao Paulo, a socialist conference hosted by the government in Caracas.
“With Chavez’s leadership, the people have made truly extraordinary achievements ... these must be preserved,” Lula said. “Chavez, count on me ... count on the solidarity and support of every leftist militant, every democrat and every Latin American. Your victory will be our victory.”
Nicknamed the “maker of presidents”, Santana has advised Lula, his successor Dilma Rousseff and other regional leaders. He is seeking to soften Chavez’s often bellicose image.
Santana splits his time between Brazil, Venezuela and Angola, where he is also working as a consultant before a presidential election.
On the other side, the duo of Pereira and Mendez - partners in the PR company Prole - are working on their first presidential election. Their challenge is to distance Capriles from the more right-wing influences in the opposition coalition, a vital vote-winning tactic in the polarized nation.
Juan Jose Rendon, a Venezuelan political strategist who just helped the PRI party return to power in Mexico, said Brazilian consultants are becoming a force in Latin American elections.
“This is the first strong, forceful and varied advance ... Before, there used to be just one: Duda Mendonca,” he said, referring to a heavyweight Brazilian political adviser who runs Duda Propaganda, used to work with Santana, and has more than 60 election campaigns under his belt.
During Lula’s fourth - and finally, successful - tilt at Brazil’s presidency in 2002, he wanted to shed his image as a union hardliner. He trimmed his beard, donned a suit and tie, toned down his rhetoric, smiled more and slowed his speech.
That transformation was credited to Mendonca, who also launched the slogan “Little Lula, peace and love,” helping Lula become Brazil’s first working-class president.
The fast-rising Santana, who can boast four Latin American presidential wins in three countries on his resume so far, is trying something similar with Chavez.
The challenge began by encouraging the former soldier to leave his green military uniform in the closet from time to time. Chavez now often appears in a suit, and sometimes even a sharp sports coat over an open-necked shirt.
Chavez also is being urged to tone down his fractious rhetoric on geopolitics, and focus more on his pragmatic, unifying traits such as the unlikely chemistry with his “new best friend,” Colombian conservative leader, Juan Manuel Santos.
“The goal is a more conciliatory image: to leave behind the radical tone,” said one of the Brazilian advisers on Chavez’s team, who asked not to be identified.
Chavez is a stressful client for a consultant watching from the wings. Back to speaking for hours at a time even given his yearlong battle with cancer, Chavez always appears to be on the verge of a new assault against political foes, or a new threat against private business.
Advisors want him stay on the “emotional” level.
Seeking to capitalize on Chavez’s enduring connection with Venezuela’s poor majority, they have rolled out the slogan “Venezuelan Heart”, which now adorns all of his campaign ads.
“We will emphasize the public’s relations with Chavez the human being: that he has given, continues to give, his life for the country,” the campaign adviser told Reuters.
Chavez often returns to a similar theme. “I am consumed by being in the service of the people, above all the suffering and the most needy ... I love you!” he said recently.
The idea is to generate a sentimental message that is difficult to undercut. A typical Santana-inspired TV spot says the comandante "is in every house" and "doesn't have permission to leave." (bit.ly/LJZd22)
Recent Latin American electoral history appears to show that Brazilian-style political marketing can bear fruit.
During his first election in Peru, Ollanta Humala was criticized by rivals for his close ties to Chavez. He had to distance himself from the Venezuelan to stand a chance. With the help of Luis Favre and Vladimir Garreta, two advisers from Lula’s Workers’ Party, he triumphed last year.
Something similar happened to Mauricio Funes in El Salvador: moderation “a la Lula,” and the guiding hand of Santana, brought him to power in 2009.
Santana helped Lula win re-election in 2006, then two years ago successfully positioned Rousseff as Lula’s successor and Brazil’s first female leader. More recently, he also advised Danilo Medina, victor of the Dominican Republic’s presidential election in May.
Beyond the populism and the cameras, Lula’s support was based largely on rocketing domestic consumption, job creation and better public sector salaries as well as loans for poor Brazilians that let them buy household appliances, computers, motorbikes, cars and subsidized homes.
Capriles, a Lula fan, spent much of his time as governor of Miranda, Venezuela’s second-biggest state, trying to imitate him, dedicating much of his budget to education, helping the poor start small businesses with “micro-loans”, and building low-cost houses.
Lula’s video endorsement of Chavez was a clear blow to Capriles but an opposition official played it down.
“It was painful to see him play that role,” said Edmundo Gonzalez.
The presence of Brazilians in Capriles’ campaign is part of his effort to present himself as a progressive leader and demonstrate a fresh start from the discredited rulers for four decades before Chavez.
The opposition is also highlighting the contrast between their 39-year-old Capriles - a youthful, energetic choice who has spent months on an exhausting “house by house” tour - and the cancer-weakened Chavez.
Pereira and Mendez, who cut their teeth at home on big domestic campaigns including the 2006 victory of Rio de Janeiro state governor Sergio Cabral, have been at the forefront of those efforts, helping launch Capriles' slogans "There is a way" and "Something good is happening." (bit.ly/oUy6pm)
The duo also created a spot with Capriles in a dark suit and open-neck shirt - not his usual look - speaking about the importance of respect regardless of "political color." It was mixed with footage of him hugging voters and wading waist-deep through floods as governor. (bit.ly/MOXYwW)
Opposition officials say the results of Capriles’ tireless campaigning will be seen soon.
“He is going to the most remote places, the most abandoned homes, the places where there are fewer people,” said Armando Briquet, the head of Capriles’ campaign. “It is a great ‘sowing’ of a campaign that’s been moving from the periphery to the center and will bear fruit before October 7.”
Given the 57-year-old Chavez's delicate health, his advisers are bringing the passion of the street to him via festive balcony appearances at the Miraflores palace and bouncy TV spots - such as Santana's latest - in which a sea of red-clad supporters rejoices and a band plays "Chavez will not leave!" (bit.ly/OcyZ78)
Whoever triumphs in October, there will be one definite winner: Brazil’s marketing machine.
Additional reporting by Terry Wade in Lima; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Kieran Murray, Doina Chiacu