SAO PAULO – SAO PAULO (AP) — To understand why Brazilian presidential candidate Dilma Rousseff is so popular despite being virtually unknown a few months back, you need only to enter the Paraisopolis slum.
The hill-clinging shacks of its 100,000 residents are surrounded by the Morumbi neighborhood, one of the richest in Latin America's wealthiest city, whose mansions and crystal blue pools are separated from the squalor by 30-foot-high, ivy-covered security walls and armed guards.
While such poverty abutting opulence is a recipe for resentment, many people in Paraisopolis express support for the political status quo because of one man: outgoing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and this backing has transferred to his hand-picked successor — the 62-year-old Rousseff.
"I'm with Dilma," said Darley Oliveira, who runs a sparkling new bakery in Paraisopolis, when asked how he will vote in the Oct. 3 elections. "She's Lula's candidate and she will continue what he has started."
Never mind that Oliveira did not know who Rousseff was before campaigning began in July and that she has never held an elected office.
"It's not important. All I need to know is that she is Lula's candidate," he said, using the nickname the president is universally known by, as he served customers bread and slices of brilliantly red cake. "For once, we've had a president who really helped the poor. I am sure that Dilma will do the same."
In an age when "change" is a common political battle cry around the globe, in Brazil the majority just want more of the same.
Since Silva took office in 2003 through the end of last year, 20.5 million Brazilians escaped poverty and 29 million entered the middle class, according to a study released this month by the private Getulio Vargas Foundation economic think tank.
Within a pool of 135 million voters, that is a large chunk the ruling Workers Party can reasonably count on for support. Add to the mix that Brazil weathered the global financial crisis better than most, there has been record job growth this year and the economy is forecast to expand by 7.5 percent, and it is easy to see why there is a desire for continuity.
Rousseff unquestionably represents that, as seen in her poll numbers, which put her about 25 percentage points ahead of opposition rival Jose Serra and give her a realistic chance of winning the election in the first round by capturing more than 50 percent of the vote.
Despite being relatively unknown and lacking Silva's charm and ability to connect to an audience, Rousseff has a life story every bit as dramatic as her political mentor's, whose past as a union leader standing up to the dictatorship is now etched in Brazil's political lore.
Rousseff was a key player in an armed militant group that resisted Brazil's 1964-85 military dictatorship — and was imprisoned and tortured for it. She is a cancer survivor and a former minister of energy and chief of staff to Silva. She possesses a management style that has earned her the moniker "Iron Lady" — a name she detests.
"She is decisive, tough, smart, well organized and committed to strengthening her party," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. "She will essentially continue the policies that have been pursued by Lula, but without the happy charisma and magnetism he has."
The daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant father, a lawyer who died when she was 14, and a Brazilian mother who was a schoolteacher, Rousseff's past points to an early political awakening. The biography on her campaign website says that in adolescence she read Emile Zola's "Germinal," a 1885 work of fiction that depicts the wretched living conditions of French miners and calls for revolutionary action.
That stuck with Rousseff, who in 1967, as a 19-year-old economics student, joined a militant political group opposing the dictatorship. For three years she helped lead guerrilla organizations, instructed comrades on Marxist theory and wrote for an underground newspaper.
Rousseff denies carrying out any acts of violence during this period, says she opposed such action and notes she was never accused by the military regime of violent acts.
Brazil's militant groups of the era did take armed action, however, notably the 1968 gunning down of U.S. Army Capt. Charles Chandler in Sao Paulo by the VPR militant group — a faction that helped create the VAR-Palmares organization joined by Rousseff. His killers accused Chandler of helping train torturers in Brazil. U.S. officials said he was in Brazil to study Portuguese in preparation for teaching classes at West Point.
After three years underground, Rousseff was captured in 1970 by Brazil's military police and was considered a big enough catch that a military prosecutor labeled her the "Joan of Arc" of the guerrilla movement.
She was tossed into the Tiradentes prison, where she spent nearly three years and was submitted to brutal torture. Rousseff was beaten to the point of heavy bleeding, underwent electric shocks and spent hours on the "parrot's perch" — a painful stress-position involving tying wrists to ankles, then suspending a prisoner off the ground by running a pole under their knees and over their biceps.
After being released, she moved to southern Brazil in 1973, where she re-united with her now ex-husband, Carlos Araujo, who was also an imprisoned militant. She gave birth to a daughter and finished her economics degree. As Brazil's dictatorship began to loosen its grip, Rousseff became more politically involved and campaigned to get her husband elected to the state congress in 1982.
In 1986, Rousseff was selected to be finance minister for the city of Porto Alegre, the beginning of a bureaucratic career that saw her serve twice as the energy minister for Rio Grande do Sul state. In 2000, she left the Democratic Workers Party, joined Silva's Workers Party, and served for two years as the nation's energy minister after Silva took office in 2003 before becoming his chief of staff.
From militant to being on the cusp of becoming Brazil's first female president, Rousseff says her political thinking has evolved drastically — from Marxism to pragmatic capitalism — but she remains proud of her radical roots.
"We fought and participated in a dream to build a better Brazil," she said in an interview published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo in 2005, one of the rare times she has spoken in detail about her militancy and torture endured.
"We learned a lot. We did a lot of nonsense, but that is not what characterizes us. What characterizes us is to have dared to want a better country."
Back in the Paraisopolis slum — which means "Paradise City" in Portuguese — that is all voters seek.
On the shantytown's highest hill, residents see hope in newly constructed government housing blocks that will hold 2,400 apartments, painted in the Workers Party traditional red color.
"You better believe I'm voting for Dilma," said Vanessa Silvamento, a 28-year-old manicurist at a beauty salon inside the slum and mother of a 4-year-old girl. "I may not understand much about politics, but I know a government finally brought changes here. For once, I feel more secure about my life."