Brazil incumbent goes on offensive in presidential debate

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - Incumbent Dilma Rousseff, now trailing top rival Marina Silva in Brazil's presidential race by 10 percent, went on the offensive in a televised debate, fighting for her job.

In the second debate between the main candidates ahead of the October 5 first round vote, Rousseff sought to come off the ropes three days after Brazil entered recession, asking environmentalist Silva how she would finance her some $60 billion of policy commitments.

"Where do you propose to get the money from?" asked Rousseff, seeking to give her Workers Party (PT) a fourth straight term leading Latin America's powerhouse.

"First, these are not promises, they are commitments," responded Silva, who served as environment minister under Rousseff's PT predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

The money would be raised, she insisted, "through our country returning to efficiency in public spending -- today there is widespread wasting of public resources," charged Silva, who has soared in the polls since replacing Eduardo Campos, killed in an August 13 plane crash, on the Socialist ticket.

Silva accused Dilma's administration of "making wrong choices," leading to rising inflation and debt, low growth and forcing citizens to pay a high price for notoriously poor public services.

- Wean budget off oil earnings? -

And she accused Brazil's first woman president of neglecting the need to move away from dependence on fuel reserves to renewables such as biomass, wind and solar power while crippling state oil giant Petrobras by the imposition of government price controls.

Scoffing that "pessimism is not the way forward," Rousseff hit back, careful to bracket her achievements during four years in power with those made during two terms of Lula, who backed for much of his tenure in stratospheric levels of voter approval.

Lula remains a broadly popular figure but recent polling suggests Silva, who grew up in poverty and only learned to read as a teenager, is winning over swathes of undecided voters who have grown weary of almost 12 years of PT hegemony.

"We took 35 million people out of poverty," Rousseff hit back, referring to the introduction under Lula of the Bolsa Familia federal welfare program and prefacing several comments lauding her government with the formula "my government and that of president Lula."

Silva last year failed to gain enough signatures to stand on her own "sustainability network" ticket before throwing her lot in with the Socialists.

Polls last week showed her level pegging on first round voter intentions with longtime favorite Rousseff and forecast to win an October 26 runoff.

- Brazil's first black president ? -

Silva's rise has cheered a stock market aghast at the country's recently sluggish weak economic performance.

Rousseff, 66, and Social Democrat Aecio Neves, 54, trailing both women in voter predictions, have both tried to paint Silva as lacking in experience.

But with Brazilians disgruntled by party politics in general the daughter of rubber tappers who wants to be Brazil's first "poor and black" president has benefited from that sentiment.

With her compelling personal story and broad-based appeal, Silva, 56, could be even more effective than her late running mate at selling the party's message of change after 20 years of Workers' Party rule.

And an evangelical Christian, Silva also appeals to both religious conservatives and the left.

Silva fired a late barb in the debate by insisting that Rousseff was blind to her administration's mistakes, which Rousseff rejected.