* Kaczynski narrows gap ahead of June vote
* Kaczynski reaches out to centrist voters in election race
* Analysts say Komorowski on defensive, still leads in polls
By Gabriela Baczynska
WARSAW, May 11 (Reuters) - Opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski is narrowing the gap with his main rival in Poland’s presidential race by projecting a conciliatory, statesmanlike image to win over middle-of-the-road voters before a June poll.
Kaczynski, a prickly conservative known for his distrust of Moscow and the European Union, aims to replace his twin brother, President Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash in Russia on April 10 along with 95 other members of Poland’s elite.
Bronislaw Komorowski, the candidate of Poland’s ruling party, the centrist, pro-business Civic Platform (PO), remains favourite to win the June 20 election, but analysts say he needs to sharpen his act and not take victory for granted.
The outcome of the election matters because Poland’s president can veto legislation and has a say in foreign and security policy. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, like his brother, could be expected to block government laws if elected head of state.
Kicking off his campaign last week, Kaczynski won an early triumph by raising 1.7 million signatures for his candidacy, far more than the 100,000 required by law and Komorowski’s 769,000.
Kaczynski has named moderate members of his right-wing, eurosceptic Law and Justice party (PiS) to run his election campaign and has studiously shunned a sometimes hostile media to minimise the risk of possible gaffes.
He enjoys the sympathy of ordinary Poles over his family’s tragic loss and this fact, along with his avoidance of the limelight, makes it difficult for PO to attack him.
"This is a very smart campaign. So far PO’s idea to win the election purely on the promise of stable and predictable governing had seemed enough, but it doesn’t anymore," said Pawel Swieboda, head of demosEuropa think-tank.
Last weekend, Kaczynski broadcast a surprisingly warm televised message to Poland’s "Russian friends" to coincide with celebrations in Moscow marking the 65th anniversary of the allied victory over Nazi Germany.
Polish soldiers marched for the first time on Red Square along with Russian, U.S., British and French troops. Kaczynski said his brother would have been proud to join the event.
When Lech Kaczynski and his entourage died in the crash, they had been heading to mark the anniversary of the massacre of 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in 1940 in western Russia by Soviet NKVD secret police on Stalin’s orders in 1940.
When Kaczynski was Polish prime minister in 2006-07 at the head of a motley right-wing coalition, bilateral relations with Russia as well as with the EU and with Germany, Poland’s biggest trade partner, hit rock bottom.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s charm offensive seems to be working. Recent polls have shown him gaining ground on Komorowski and pushing the vote into a second round on July 4. [ID:nLDE6492KN]
"The radical rightist electorate has no other choice than to back Kaczynski, so it is smart of him to decide to lure some voters from the centre," said Radoslaw Markowski of the Polish Academy of Sciences.
Analysts estimate the traditional constituency of PiS, which is conservative on moral issues but leans to the left on the economy by backing more state spending and opposing privatisation, at around 30 percent of the population.
PiS voters, who tend to be older and less educated, are more disciplined than PO’s younger, more urban supporters, and this could boost their count on voting day.
KOMOROWSKI ON DEFENSIVE
"What Kaczynski is doing is bringing him success. The Civic Platform seems to be on the defensive now," said Jacek Raciborski of Warsaw University. "In the end I still think Komorowski will win, but Kaczynski can still gain more votes."
Komorowski, who automatically became acting president on Lech Kaczynski’s death in his capacity as speaker of parliament, is a calm, gently-spoken PO loyalist close to Prime Minister Donald Tusk, but he lacks charisma.
Tusk conceded in an interview in Gazeta Wyborcza daily that Komorowski was now unlikely to win in the first round of the election but also said a Kaczynski win could destabilise Poland by reviving conflict between the government and presidency.
Tusk and Kaczynski are also preparing for parliamentary elections next year. PO remains ahead of Kaczynski’s PiS in opinion polls but some have shown a narrowing of that gap too.
Both Tusk and Komorowski said voters should not be deceived by the apparently reasonable image now projected by Kaczynski.
"I think everyone should ask whether the recent change in Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s behaviour is credible," Komorowski said.
An SMG/KRC survey released by Polish television on Tuesday showed 28 percent of Poles did not think Jaroslaw Kaczynski had changed, 36 percent said he had tweaked his image for political purposes and 27 percent believed the change was genuine. (Editing by Gareth Jones and Reed Stevenson)