RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- At a packed Baptist church, the Rev. Jesse Jackson stood at the altar and told a cheering congregation the country's leading presidential candidate had been "touched by God."
Jackson's endorsement of the leftist Workers Party's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula, was aimed at a wider audience -- Brazil's evangelical Protestants.
The burgeoning faith has assumed a powerful place in Brazilian politics, to the point of overshadowing the Catholic majority, and Lula and other candidates are battling to win evangelical support.
Public opinion polls show Lula is close to a first-ballot victory in Sunday's election. If no one gets a majority in the first round, the top two candidates go to a runoff on Oct. 27.
But even if he has the lead, Lula is leaving little to chance, insisting to the crowd that he shares the same ideals -- and endured the same discrimination -- as Jesus.
"Who in human history was more revolutionary than Jesus Christ? Who fought more for social justice?" Lula asked. "The same elite that is prejudiced against us today, had a prejudice against him."
His appeal may not be so successful. The "evangelicals," as Brazilians call them, overwhelmingly support Anthony Garotinho, a former governor of Rio de Janeiro state and himself a Protestant evangelist. But their electoral power is too strong to ignore.
More than 50 federal legislators are evangelicals. That is about 10 percent of the 513-strong Chamber of Deputies, a decisive legislative army when controversial issues come up.
"The evangelicals' vote is like a bloc. They vote en masse for their people," said Regina Novaes, an anthropologist at the Rio-based Religious Studies Center. "They have successfully transformed religious membership into votes."
Protestant churches are expanding aggressively in Brazil, which 50 years ago was almost entirely Catholic and is still the world's largest Catholic country. The number of churches has doubled in 20 years, and today more than 15 percent of the population is Protestant -- 18 percent, by their own count.
The Protestants' strength is evident in the current elections. Thanks to their support, Garotinho holds about 15 percent of the vote and is virtually tied for second place with government-backed candidate Jose Serra.
"Evangelicals are inclined to vote for me," said Garotinho, who calls himself "a man of God" and maintains his rise in opinion polls has been "a victory of the evangelical faith."
"Among the 18 percent evangelicals in Brazil, I have almost 50 percent," he said. That alone represents 9 percent of the total vote.
Another rising star is Marcelo Crivella, a bishop of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Founded in Rio in 1975, the church now has some 7,000 temples across Brazil, is established in 80 countries and owns a newspaper, a popular TV network and radio stations.
According to public opinion polls, Crivella is running nearly equal in the race for a senate seat with political heavyweights such as former Rio governor Leonel Brizola and incumbent Artur da Tavola.
The evangelicals' political clout has prompted a response from Catholics.
"Evangelicals identify their faith with political participation. Why shouldn't we Catholics?" asks Silvio Senna.