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SAO PAULO – Just eight months into his job as Sao Paulo mayor, Joao Doria appears to be positioning himself as a presidential hopeful who can save Brazil from a seemingly bottomless pit of graft scandals, even while insisting he isn't running.
Telegenic and media savvy thanks to years of working in television studios, the millionaire communications mogul has something the majority of Brazilian presidential hopefuls don't: a name unsullied by allegations of corruption at a time when much of Brazil's congress is believed to be under criminal investigation.
That image helped him shock the political establishment last year with a landslide mayoral victory in Sao Paulo. It was the first time in decades a mayoral candidate in the country's largest city had won in the first round, automatically vaulting him into consideration for the October 2018 presidential election.
Since taking office Jan. 1, Doria's routine denials of interest in the presidency have done little to quell speculation.
The 59-year-old mayor has led splashy efforts to stamp out the city's drug-infested "crackland," clean up graffiti and sell off dozens of public properties, including a public cemetery. He has also been speaking about national issues, such as pension and labor law reforms, as well as international topics, denouncing Venezuela's socialist government and occasionally showing off the French he learned as a child while living a few years in Paris.
"Doria is clearly trying to show and construct an image that goes beyond just the mayor of Sao Paulo," said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the state University of Rio de Janeiro. "As a candidate, however, he'll run into many problems."
A July poll by the respected Datafolha institute said Doria was favored by 10 percent of potential voters next year, putting him in fourth place, ahead of far more established candidates.
Doria was born into Sao Paulo's social elite, and his father, a political consultant, briefly served in Congress. The family went to Paris in exile when his father clashed with the dictators after the military took power in 1964.
His father stayed away for a decade, but Doria returned to Brazil after a few years with his mother and younger brother, going to school and helping his mother run a diaper factory. He has described those years as "filled with difficulties," saying the "maximum luxury" was having Jello on the weekends.
After graduating with a degree in communications, Doria built a successful career in marketing and consulting, publishing magazines such as "Caviar" and "Women Leaders" and establishing himself as a motivational guru with books such as "Success With Style and Lessons to Win."
In another parallel with Donald Trump, he briefly hosted the Brazilian version of "The Apprentice" reality show, though Doria prefers to compare himself with another U.S. businessman turned politician: former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
He plays to that business-minded image, boasting of working weekends in a country where politicians are notorious for putting in three-day work weeks. His social media videos show him hobnobbing with everyone from street cleaners to power brokers.
The biggest challenge to a presidential run is that the white knight probably would have to embrace some of the swamp-stained parties that dominate the country's politics: Mounting a viable nationwide candidacy requires the money and organizational muscle of major parties.
Doria's own Brazilian Social Democratic Party is sharply divided because its 2014 presidential candidate, Sen. Aecio Neves, has gotten caught up in in the mammoth "Car Wash" corruption probe that has rocked the country. Neves is awaiting trial on charges of corruption and obstruction of justice.
Doria would also have to leapfrog over established party figures such as his own political mentor, Sao Paulo Gov. Geraldo Alckmin, who wants to run for president himself.
Speculation that Doria would run reached such a level that he felt compelled to make a recent video showing him standing beside Alckmin and declaring his "loyalty," though he didn't actually endorse Alckmin for president.
Alckmin hasn't directly referred to Doria's presidential hopes, though he now trails the mayor in some polls. But the elder politician has taken to arguing that next year's election will come down to "experience."
"Doria is the party's future, the new generation, but he must first show he is a competent administrator as mayor," said Pedro Tobias, president of the party for Sao Paulo state.
Paulistanos, as Sao Paulo residents are known, assume Doria is already in the race.
"His business experience and apparently clean, corruption-free background is what Brazil needs to get out of its crisis," said Eduardo Barcellos, a 52-year-old dentist.
Still, as a fiscally conservative white man from a privileged background, Doria would have to work hard to win over a national electorate that is predominantly nonwhite and that includes tens of millions people in abject poverty who fear any signs of cuts in government social spending.
During a visit to the left-leaning northeastern city of Salvador last month, several protesters threw eggs at Doria, with one hitting and cracking on his forehead.
A few days later, Doria poked fun at the incident while helping to serve 10,000 omelets to the poor.
"I learned that lemons can be made into lemonade," said Doria for his social media video. "Now in public service, I've learned that thrown eggs can be turned into eggnog."
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