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Brazil ministers begin leaving office to campaign

* Justice minister first of several to launch campaign

* Central bank chief to decide on campaign late March

* Finance Minister Mantega to stay on board until December

BRASILIA, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Brazil’s justice minister on Tuesday became the first of several cabinet members to resign so he could run in this year’s election, raising the prospect that President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s government could lose steam well before its term ends in December.

Justice Minister Tarso Genro said he will step down next week to bid for the governorship of his home state, Rio Grande do Sul.

At least a dozen other ministers were expected to step down over the next two months.

By law, candidates seeking public office and holding certain executive posts must step down six months before the Oct. 3 general election.

Other ministers to hit the campaign trail are Agriculture Minister Reinhold Stephanes and Environment Minister Carlos Minc, who will seek a seat in Congress and in the Rio de Janeiro state assembly, respectively.

Typically they are replaced by career civil servants, who lack political capital to push through the government’s agenda.

Lula on Monday said he had to redouble efforts during his last year in office to avoid the impression he was running a lame-duck administration.

“If the government, which is at the end of its term, lets up on its agenda ... it looks like the government has come to an end,” Lula said.

Central bank chief Henrique Meirelles reiterated on Tuesday that he would only decide at the end of March whether to pursue a career in politics. The former Wall Street banker, who is credited with helping maintain Brazil’s economic stability, joined the centrist PMDB party last year.

Meirelles said at a Sao Paulo conference he did not think he would run for the governorship of his home state of Goias.

Party leaders have said he was also considering bidding for a seat in the Senate or for the vice-presidency as the running-mate of Dilma Rousseff, now Lula’s chief of staff.

Rousseff will leave office to bid for the country’s top job on behalf of the ruling Workers’ Party. She trailed Sao Paulo state Governor Jose Serra of the opposition PSDB party by 5 percentage points in the latest poll.

Finance Minister Guido Mantega is expected to stay on. (Reporting by Natuza Nery and Cesar Bianconi in Sao Paulo; Writing by Raymond Colitt; Editing by Doina Chiacu)