- Associated Press - Thursday, August 23, 2018

SAO PAULO (AP) - A leading right-wing presidential candidate in Brazil appeared to backtrack Thursday on his initial decision to skip all seven remaining debates before the Oct. 7 election, saying that he may participate in three.

Earlier, an attorney for Congressman Jair Bolsonaro said the candidate would not attend the remaining debates because they did not add to the race.

But after a campaign event in Sao Paulo state, the congressman later said he could not “lose contact with the people.”

“I can’t be in a studio, there are 40 days to the election,” Bolsonaro told journalists. He said he wouldn’t attend all the debates, but his “idea” was to make an appearance at some.

The public vacillation comes after a poll showed a spike in the number of Brazilians who wouldn’t vote for Bolsonaro under any circumstances following two recent TV debates.

Bolsonaro’s performances were loved by hardcore fans, but were criticized by moderate politicians and voters who he needs to win over.

The congressman was only mildly targeted on both occasions by seven opponents.

A Datafolha poll published Wednesday shows jailed former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva with support among 39 percent of those surveyed, but he is likely to be barred from seeking office because of a corruption conviction. He denies any wrongdoing and was not allowed to participate in the debates despite leading the polls.

Bolsonaro is running second at 19 percent, which is far ahead of former Sao Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad, who is da Silva’s likely replacement and choice for vice president.

The same Datafolha poll said 39 percent of voters would never choose Bolsonaro. It also showed that 43 percent of women wouldn’t support him, a major concern for the congressman in a country where females comprise 52 percent of the electorate.

The Datafolha poll, which has margin of error of 2 percentage points, was based on interviews with 8,433 people between Aug. 20 and 21.

Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper university, said his strategy makes sense only if Bolsonaro sees his position as consolidated in the race.

“Other leading candidates have skipped debates before, and Bolsonaro might believe he hit his ceiling for the first vote. If that is the case, the debates don’t help him,” Melo told The Associated Press. “But his advantage is not too big, and adversaries will ask why the former army captain that speaks so loud doesn’t want to debate. He might backtrack, but rivals will talk about that a lot.”

Regardless of Bolsonaro’s decision to bow out of the debates, right-leaning Geraldo Alckmin said Wednesday that all candidates want to face the congressman in a runoff.

The Datafolha poll showed Bolsonaro could lose a likely runoff on Oct. 28 to centrist Marina Silva, left-leaning Ciro Gomes and Alckmin, who is polling at less than 10 percent.

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