By Rodrigo Viga Gaier and Ricardo Brito
RIO DE JANEIRO/BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazilian far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro said on Wednesday that electoral victory was “within reach” and his campaign team said it had now switched to “cruise control” as it seeks to avoid hiccups and glide to the finish line.
Bolsonaro has a sizeable lead in opinion polls over his leftist rival, Workers Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad, ahead of the Oct. 28 run-off vote. He is now seeking to ride to the presidency on a wave of anger over graft, rising violence and a weak economy.
“We’re within reach (of the presidency), it’s true,” he told reporters in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday after a campaign visit to the federal police. Haddad was “not going to gain 18 million votes between now and two Sunday’s time,” he said.
Bolsonaro will skip presidential debates and large campaign events, his would-be chief of staff, Congressman Onyx Lorenzoni, told Reuters on Tuesday.
The candidate is still recovering from a near-fatal stab wound received on the campaign trail, which has forced him to keep a lower profile. His poll numbers have increased since the Sept. 6 assassination attempt.
However, Bolsonaro, who openly defends Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship and has pledged a crackdown on crime if he is elected, has made several high-profile visits to law enforcement gatherings in Rio.
Lorenzoni said debates were pointless and made no difference to his candidate’s commanding lead in the race.
When asked on Wednesday whether he would appear at debates, Bolsonaro did not answer.
The former army captain has previously suffered in the polls after debate appearances, where he has revealed a relative lack of expertise on economic matters under tough questioning.
In recent days, with victory ever-closer, Bolsonaro has ordered his team to step back from the limelight to avoid making public declarations that could hurt him in the final few days of the race, campaign sources told Reuters.
Luciano Bivar, a federal congressman and founder of Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (PSL), said it was the right strategy.
“It’s a very important moment for Brazilian society, and we all need to be very careful,” he said. “Today, the PSL is a protagonist on the political scene and we all have to be responsible.”
Earlier in the campaign, Bolsonaro was forced onto the defensive as his vice-presidential pick, retired General Hamilton Mourao, and economic advisor Paulo Guedes made blunders over potential policies.
Bolsonaro’s hands-off strategy poses a major problem for Haddad, who faces an uphill battle to unify opposition to the poll-leader. He is also struggling to add luster to the damaged brand of the PT, which ran Brazil for 13 of the last 15 years and is blamed by many for the country’s woes.
The party’s founder, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is in jail after a corruption conviction, and as Lula’s hand-picked candidate, Haddad is struggling to escape the shadow of a figure who is either loved or loathed by many in Brazil.
Haddad’s campaign on Wednesday asked Brazil’s election tribunal to declare Bolsonaro and Mourao ineligible from running over alleged irregularities with their billboard publicity.
Bolsonaro hit back by saying the attempt was emblematic of the “hopelessness” of his opponents.
A 63-year-old, seven-term congressman, Bolsonaro has successfully pitched himself as the anti-establishment candidate, appealing to voters fed up with political graft and violent crime.
He has run an unorthodox campaign, relying on social media and grass roots rallies that have won him legions of fans who delight at his sharp words and Twitter putdowns.
Nonetheless, polls show he is also widely disliked by many in the electorate who have been alienated by years of his misogynist, racist and homophobic comments.
(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle; writing by Gabriel Stargardter; editing by Clive McKeef and Rosalba O’Brien)