By Stuart Grudgings
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Complete with its own version of "Obama Girl," Brazil's election has moved firmly into the Internet age this year as candidates battle for votes and clicks among a surging number of computer users.
The two main contenders to succeed President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva have become avid tweeters, invested in websites that can gather donations, and on Wednesday took part in the country's first online presidential debate.
The debate among the ruling coalition's Dilma Rousseff, her chief opponent Jose Serra and trailing Green Party candidate Marina Silva provided the sharpest exchanges of the campaign so far and was streamed live on networking sites Twitter and Facebook.
While TV remains the most powerful medium in the vast country of 190 million people, the Internet is rapidly growing in importance as millions of consumers get a foothold in the middle class every year and buy their first computer.
The two main parties are trying to import aspects of the strategy that helped Barack Obama win the U.S. presidency in 2008 by leap-frogging the mainstream media, organizing supporters, and gathering record online donations.
The number of Internet users in Latin America's largest economy hit 72 million in 2008, according to the World Bank, doubling from four years earlier. Once they get online, Brazilians tend to stay there, racking up more time surfing per month than any other nationality, one survey showed.
"This is the first stage of a new thing that's happening," said Joe Rospars, a founder of the Blue State Digital firm that devised Obama's game-changing Internet strategy and which has been hired to do the same job for Rousseff.
"As more critical mass of voters and people get online, the more they are going to do and demand from campaigns and the more campaigns will be looking to do with them."
The race has already had its first YouTube hit reminiscent of the video "I got a crush on Obama" featuring "Obama Girl" that went viral ahead of the 2008 U.S. election.
As "Dilmaboy," already watched nearly a quarter of a million times, university student Paulo Reis dances and croons his admiration of Rousseff, telling her opponent:
"The people are hungry and want to eat. Sorry Serra, but you're going to lose."
The video is a rare moment of comic relief for voters in Brazil, where TV and radio stations are legally banned from poking fun at candidates in the run-up to the election.
Serra, a former Sao Paulo state governor, has used his Twitter page since last year to form a direct link with voters, combating his somewhat stiff and aloof image with light-hearted musings on football and his daily routine.
While he trails Rousseff in opinion polls ahead of the October 3 vote, he at least has a bigger Twitter presence with more than 370,000 "followers" to his rival's 174,000.
LACK OF PASSION?
The popular Lula has yet to follow Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez by opening his own Twitter page but a video message from him was posted on Rousseff's page this week urging Internet users to help make her Brazil's first woman leader.
"Each Internet user is an opinion former," said the ex-union boss, who last year signed a law permitting Internet campaigning.
As in the United States, Brazilian parties are aiming to use the Internet as an organizing and funding tool, targeting enthusiastic voters who can spread the word about a candidate.
"At the moment only militants seem interested, but we think a lot of people will go online near the election day to look for information about the candidates," said Danielle Fonteles, the director of Pepper Communications, a Brazilian firm that is working with Blue State Digital on Rousseff's campaign.
Skeptics say the engagement of Brazilians on networking sites such as Twitter is shallow and unlikely to translate into passionate grass-roots activism in a race between two largely uncharismatic candidates with similar backgrounds.
Only 7 percent of voters get their campaign information from the Internet, compared to more than 20 percent in the United States, a recent Datafolha survey found.
"The parties are still learning how to use this medium so there's a lot of uncertainly over its impact," said Rafael Cortez, a political analyst at Tendencias consultancy in Sao Paulo.
(Editing by Eric Beech)