By Brian Ellsworth and Fernando Cardoso
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro heads into Sunday's election with strong support among evangelical Christians, a key demographic that his rival former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had been courting in a tight presidential race.
Polls show Bolsonaro expanding his share of the evangelical vote as his campaign intensified its religious appeals, while attacking Lula's leftist Workers' Party for its defense of gay rights and the rights of those who practice Afro-Brazilian religious traditions.
Lula had attempted to make inroads among evangelicals by peppering his speeches with biblical references, and denying accusations from Bolsonaro's camp that he plans to curtail religious freedoms or support abortion.
However, four prominent pollsters show support for Bolsonaro above 60% among evangelicals, making them the strongest single demographic backing re-election of the far-right populist.
Bolsonaro has long focused on controversial social issues as a way of activating religious conservatives, said Flavio Conrado of Casa Galileia, an organization that promotes dialogue around democracy and Christian values.
"Bolsonaro did this knowing that this conservative moral agenda – abortion, issues of gender roles, homosexuality – were issues that evangelicals are sensitive to. And not just evangelicals, Catholics too," he said.
Even before the campaign formally began, Bolsonaro was already focusing much of his official agenda on religious events. In July and August, 40% of his public appearances outside Brasilia were at religious marches, services or meetings, according to a Reuters analysis of his activities.
Bolsonaro, was raised Catholic and baptized in the Jordan River by an evangelical pastor during a visit to Israel prior to his 2018 election, as part of a broader effort to boost his appeal among the key religious bloc.
His wife Michelle Bolsonaro, an evangelical Christian, has also taken a prominent role in this year's campaign, delivering fire-and-brimstone inflected stump speeches to rapt audiences.
Evangelicals made up around 22% of the Brazilian population as of the 2010 census, a jump of 7 percentage points from the prior decade. The next census, which was delayed due to the pandemic, is expected to show another increase on that order.
Lula's support among evangelical voters is lagging around 30%, according to recent opinion surveys by polling firms IPEC, Datafolha, AtlasIntel and Quaest.
Support among evangelicals has helped Bolsonaro chip away at Lula's traditional strength among lower-income voters, who benefited from the expansion of social welfare programs during Lula's presidency from 2003 to 2010, which helped pull millions out of poverty.
(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Fernando Cardoso in Sao Paulo)