By Diego Ore
CARACAS (Reuters) - In Venezuela's presidential election, everyone wants to look like Lula.
Both candidates are turning to Brazilian consultants in an attempt to borrow from Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's popular leftist model and political style as they gush admiration for the former metalworker who led Brazil from 2003-2010.
Like him, they want to court centrist voters, do business with the United States and with China, oversee economic growth, cut poverty and fund robust welfare programs.
With the October 7 election shaping up to be Venezuela's closest in years, the teams behind President Hugo Chavez and his rival, Henrique Capriles, have hired stars from Brazil's booming political marketing industry, known for its slick campaign spots.
Veteran campaigner Joao Santana, 59, joined Chavez's operation a few months ago, while the younger pairing of Renato Pereira and Francisco 'Chico' Mendez have worked with the opposition's candidate Capriles since the start of the year.
Fighting for the middle ground, Lula-style, is likely to be the crucial battle of the Venezuelan election. Although most polls give Chavez a double-digit lead over Capriles, they also show that up to a third of voters are undecided.
Lula himself dived into the race on Friday, warmly endorsing his friend Chavez in a video played at the Forum of Sao Paulo, a socialist conference hosted by the government in Caracas.
"With Chavez's leadership, the people have made truly ??extraordinary achievements ... these must be preserved," Lula said. "Chavez, count on me ... count on the solidarity and support of every leftist militant, every democrat and every Latin American. Your victory will be our victory."
Nicknamed the "maker of presidents", Santana has advised Lula, his successor Dilma Rousseff and other regional leaders. He is seeking to soften Chavez's often bellicose image.
Santana splits his time between Brazil, Venezuela and Angola, where he is also working as a consultant before a presidential election.
On the other side, the duo of Pereira and Mendez - partners in the PR company Prole - are working on their first presidential election. Their challenge is to distance Capriles from the more right-wing influences in the opposition coalition, a vital vote-winning tactic in the polarized nation.
Juan Jose Rendon, a Venezuelan political strategist who just helped the PRI party return to power in Mexico, said Brazilian consultants are becoming a force in Latin American elections.
"This is the first strong, forceful and varied advance ... Before, there used to be just one: Duda Mendonca," he said, referring to a heavyweight Brazilian political adviser who runs Duda Propaganda, used to work with Santana, and has more than 60 election campaigns under his belt.
CHAVEZ: PEACE AND LOVE?
During Lula's fourth - and finally, successful - tilt at Brazil's presidency in 2002, he wanted to shed his image as a union hardliner. He trimmed his beard, donned a suit and tie, toned down his rhetoric, smiled more and slowed his speech.
That transformation was credited to Mendonca, who also launched the slogan "Little Lula, peace and love," helping Lula become Brazil's first working-class president.
The fast-rising Santana, who can boast four Latin American presidential wins in three countries on his resume so far, is trying something similar with Chavez.
The challenge began by encouraging the former soldier to leave his green military uniform in the closet from time to time. Chavez now often appears in a suit, and sometimes even a sharp sports coat over an open-necked shirt.
Chavez also is being urged to tone down his fractious rhetoric on geopolitics, and focus more on his pragmatic, unifying traits such as the unlikely chemistry with his "new best friend," Colombian conservative leader, Juan Manuel Santos.
"The goal is a more conciliatory image: to leave behind the radical tone," said one of the Brazilian advisers on Chavez's team, who asked not to be identified.
Chavez is a stressful client for a consultant watching from the wings. Back to speaking for hours at a time even given his yearlong battle with cancer, Chavez always appears to be on the verge of a new assault against political foes, or a new threat against private business.
Advisors want him stay on the "emotional" level.
Seeking to capitalize on Chavez's enduring connection with Venezuela's poor majority, they have rolled out the slogan "Venezuelan Heart", which now adorns all of his campaign ads.
"We will emphasize the public's relations with Chavez the human being: that he has given, continues to give, his life for the country," the campaign adviser told Reuters.
Chavez often returns to a similar theme. "I am consumed by being in the service of the people, above all the suffering and the most needy ... I love you!" he said recently.
The idea is to generate a sentimental message that is difficult to undercut. A typical Santana-inspired TV spot says the comandante "is in every house" and "doesn't have permission to leave." (http://bit.ly/LJZd22) Continued...