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Candidates in Brazil's presidential race take their final laps

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Candidates in Brazil's presidential race are taking their final laps around the country in what has become the most significant election since Latin America's largest country returned to democracy in 1985. Tomorrow, the choice for voters comes down to two polar opposites - a far-right former Army captain who has told his supporters to prepare for war if he loses or an elderly leftist who, just three years ago, was in jail for corruption. NPR's Carrie Kahn has this report.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: This morning, on a busy street in Sao Paulo, President Jair Bolsonaro campaigned like he loves to do - on his motorcycle. Wearing a black jacket, gloves and no helmet, Bolsonaro poses for selfies with supporters. Daniel Figueredo (ph) is an 18-year-old restaurant worker in a sea of Bolsonaro supporters waving Brazilian flags.

DANIEL FIGUEREDO: He defends family. He defends God. He defends our country. And he's a righteous man, and he defends what is right.

KAHN: Bolsonaro's loyal base love his brash style. He frequently attacks the media and activists. During the COVID pandemic, as Brazil experienced one of the highest death tolls in the world, he told Brazilians to stop whining. On his watch, destruction of the Amazon rainforest has reached unprecedented levels. But he's trailing in the polls and could lose outright in tomorrow's first round. Supporters like retired flight attendant Fatima Garcia (ph) says that's impossible.

FATIMA GARCIA: No, I don't believe the polls. I never did. You see, he is very, very strong.

KAHN: The only way he'll lose is through fraud, she says. And if that happens, she'll be out on the streets.

GARCIA: There will be a huge reaction from the public. Nobody will be stand still.

KAHN: Bolsonaro has long stoked false claims of fraud. And given Brazil's young democracy - the last military dictatorship ended in 1985 - many are concerned he could call in support from the military.

THOMAS SHANNON: This guy is not going to go peacefully into the night.

KAHN: Thomas Shannon, a former U.S. ambassador to Brazil, says he doubts Bolsonaro will find backing from the military.

SHANNON: The military is a revered institution in Brazil and has a lot at stake. You know, handing all that over to somebody like Bolsonaro is something that I don't see the institution doing.

KAHN: And Bolsonaro's chief rival, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, also has strong support.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

LUIZ INACIO LULA DA SILVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: In this campaign ad, da Silva projects himself as a serene man of peace. A win tomorrow for the 76-year-old would be a stunning political comeback. Just three years ago, he sat in a Brazilian prison, jailed on corruption charges. A court later annulled his conviction.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

DA SILVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "I have no time for hate, no time for revenge," he says. While many revere da Silva for his government policies that lifted tens of millions out of poverty, Bolsonaro tries to paint de Silva as a dangerous crook and communist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "You are a liar, an ex-convict and a traitor to our country," said Bolsonaro, doing a raucous debate this week. It's unclear if that strategy will convince voters. If neither candidate wins more than 50% tomorrow, the two men will once again face each other in a runoff on October 30. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.