SAO BERNARDO DO CAMPO, Brazil – President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva kicked off his campaign for re-election by promising to help Brazil's poor and uneducated working class.
"Our goal was, is and shall be to improve the lives of workers," Silva told supporters Thursday at a dinner in this industrial suburb of Sao Paulo where he helped launch the Workers Party, or PT, 27 years ago.
"For us, economic policy and social policy are two faces of same coin," Silva said.
The 60-year-old president, who has rebounded from a corruption scandal and risen in public opinion polls, is heavily favored to win a second four-year term in the Oct. 1 election.
"He's the best president Brazil has ever had," said Valter Samara, a 69-year-old farmer who came from neighboring Parana state to attend the kickoff.
Silva, a grade-school dropout and former factory worker from the poor northeast, has strong support among working-class Brazilians. His cautious economic policy has kept the country on a path of steady growth, while the minimum wage has risen sharply to $160 a month.
"Millions of Brazilians have left poverty under my administration and entered the middle class," Silva said. "Employment rates have in risen every single month of my government."
Life-size posters of Silva and banners reading "Lula again, with the strength of the people" decorated the huge Sao Judas Tadeu restaurant, where some 3,000 people attended the $92-a-plate fundraiser.
In a survey this week by the polling firm Sensus, 44 percent of respondents backed Silva compared with 27 percent for his closest rival, former Sao Paulo state Gov. Geraldo Alckmin of the centrist Social Democracy Party.
Sensus said that, discounting undecided voters and blank or voided ballots, Silva would probably get the 50 percent he needs to avoid a runoff Oct. 29.
PT President Ricardo Berzoini said Wednesday that one of Silva's biggest challenges is to recover the support of the middle class, which helped catapult him to the presidency four years ago.
He said many middle-class Brazilians felt excluded from the government's social programs aimed at helping the poor.
Another major campaign issue is public safety,
Six people have been killed in nearly 100 gang attacks on police and civilian targets in Sao Paulo since Tuesday. Residents had trouble getting to work Thursday morning because several bus companies suspended service out of fear of new attacks.
Late Thursday the city said it would put plainclothes police on at least half of Sao Paulo's buses.
The violence comes two months after imprisoned leaders of the gang First Capital Command — known by its Portuguese initials PCC — ordered attacks against police across the city and Sao Paulo state, causing the deaths of nearly 200 police, prison guards, suspected criminals and jail inmates in one week.
Silva's administration and party were rocked last year by a corruption scandal that led to a wave of resignations from his inner circle.
A congressional probe found no proof of allegations that the government paid legislators to back bills in Congress, but Silva's popularity slumped.
However, his approval ratings rebounded as Brazil's economy improved on low inflation, healthy foreign investment and strong exports.
"In our next government," Silva said Thursday, "we will correct what we did wrong and expand on what we did right."