BRASÍLIA - Once a discreetly smiling presence at Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's side, First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro is increasingly wooing Evangelical Christian and women voters to re-elect the husband she calls "one of God's chosen ones".
Trailing in the polls to leftist rival Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the far-right incumbent has turned to his telegenic, fervently Christian wife to help him with those two key demographic groups ahead of Oct 2 elections.
A mainly behind-the-scenes presence for most of Bolsonaro's term, the first lady is now playing a starring role in his campaign - to the point of giving what he himself called the keynote speech when he launched his re-election bid a month ago.
"She's the most important person here," Bolsonaro, 67, gushed that day.
He then handed the mic over to his beaming 40-year-old wife, who warned ominously against returning "our enemies" to power and led the crowd in the Lord's prayer.
Lula, Brazil's president from 2003 to 2010, is leading Bolsonaro 45 per cent to 33 per cent, according to a poll released on Thursday by the Datafolha institute.
Among women, the gap was even bigger: 46 per cent to 29 per cent.
Bolsonaro has long struggled with women voters.
In his 2018 campaign, the former army captain was the target of a women-led movement called #EleNao - "not him" - launched by critics who accuse him of misogyny.
He has revived those accusations this time around with controversial campaign-trail behaviour such as bragging about his supposed sexual prowess and lashing out at a woman journalist who asked him a tough question during the first presidential debate.
"You must have a crush on me or something," he told her sarcastically.
Enter the first lady.
"Her role is to make (Bolsonaro) more attractive to women voters," says Sergio Praca, a political analyst at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
Both Bolsonaro and former president Lula are keenly courting women (53 per cent of the electorate) and Evangelicals (an estimated 31 per cent of Brazil's 213 million people).
Known for his aggressive style and use of profanities, Bolsonaro has sometimes rubbed both groups the wrong way.
Political analysts say women voters also resent his lack of policies to help them through the country's post-Covid-19 economic malaise, the impact of which has fallen disproportionately on their shoulders.
Michelle, Bolsonaro's third wife, sends the message the president is a "conservative family man" and "trustworthy" candidate, says Carolina Botelho, a political communication specialist at Rio de Janeiro State University.
The elegant first lady's increasingly active role has turned heads - including among the electoral authorities, who recently blocked a Bolsonaro campaign ad from television, ruling she had exceeded the time allotted to candidates' allies.
But it is unclear if the strategy is paying off: Bolsonaro's poll numbers among women have remained essentially flat.
Michelle "may have reinforced (Bolsonaro's) standing among women who were already with him, but she hasn't drawn in those who were against him," says Botelho.
"She speaks well to a fanatic, radicalised audience, but not to the rest of the population."
Religion and politics
The first lady appears to have greater pull with conservative Christians, given her history of volunteering on church-affiliated charity projects and her close ties with powerful Evangelical pastors and politicians.
"Her main strength is among the Evangelical electorate," says Adriano Laureno, a political analyst at consulting firm Prospectiva.
Her speaking style "closely resembles a pastor's", with constant references to God and a struggle between good and evil, he adds.
In this case, the strategy may be working: Bolsonaro has extended his lead over Lula among Evangelicals, which stands at 49 per cent to 32 per cent in the latest Datafolha poll.
Polls also show a majority of voters in Brazil believe religion should play a role in politics.
The first lady does just that in her public appearances, regularly repeating her husband's slogan: "Brazil above all, and God above everyone." AFP