RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — As Brazil’s top two presidential candidates gear up for a runoff election, all eyes are on a candidate who didn’t even make it into the final round.

Green Party candidate Marina Silva, a black senator born into poverty in the rural Amazon, came in third place with almost 20 percent of Sunday’s vote. Her unexpectedly strong showing blocked a first-round win for front-runner Dilma Rousseff — the former chief of staff and chosen successor of current president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — and propels a former fringe candidate to the center of  Brazil’s political stage.

“If she declares in favor of [second-place finisher Jose] Serra or Dilma, Marina will become the swing vote that might well decide this runoff,” said David Fleischer, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia. “This has really elevated her stature in Brazilian politics.”

Analysts blame two last-minute issues for spoiling Rousseff’s lead in the polls, leaving her with millions fewer votes than even the most pessimistic predictions.

The first was an influence-peddling scandal involving a former member of Rousseff’s staff. After the news magazine Veja first published the allegations, Rousseff’s numbers dipped slightly, and support for Serra and Silva rose slightly, particularly among higher income, better educated, voters. “The scandals of the last two weeks had an effect,” said Alexandre Barros, a political consultant based in Brasilia. “Now the game starts all over.”

The second issue was abortion. In the days leading up to the election, rumors began circulating that Rousseff aimed to legalize abortion — a procedure Brazil now allows only in cases of rape or risk to the mother’s health.

Rousseff has vowed she supports Brazil’s current anti-abortion policy, but observers say Catholic and evangelical voters defected to Silva anyway. Silva is an evangelical Christian who has said she’s
personally opposed to abortion.

“In the very end, it appears that the abortion issue was what moved more voters away from Dilma,” said Paulo Sotero, a Brazil specialist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. “That was a very late movement that was detected by pollsters only Saturday.”

As the curtain rises on a runoff, it’s far from clear who Silva will choose to back. She was a founding member of Lula’s Worker’s Party, and served under him as environmental minister. But she stepped down after a series of clashes with Lula and Rousseff over hydroelectric dams in the Amazon and plans to clear land for biofuel production.

"Nothing is actually decided," Barros said. "I think we’re going to have to wait for another at least three or four days because now everybody is regrouping."

The newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo reported Rousseff's campaign officials hope to meet with Silva to ask for her support, but a few members of Silva's Green Party have already backed Serra. Some predict Silva will remain neutral — a move to consolidate the Green Party’s chances for the next presidential contest in 2014.

“My prediction is she and her party will probably declare neutrality to position themselves to run again,” Fleischer said.

In the final count, Rousseff garnered 46.9 percent of the valid votes Sunday, while Serra took a distant second at 32.6 percent, Brazil’s Supreme Electoral Court reported after 99.9 percent of ballots were tallied.

A Serra victory in the second round is still considered a long shot. But Sunday’s vote demonstrated Lula’s 80 percent approval ratings weren’t enough to deliver an early or easy victory for Rousseff, who was largely unknown before the campaign.

“Dilma has to assert herself as her own person,” Sotero said. “It injects a new element, a message for president Lula telling him to be careful. If Lula presents this as his election, he may end up hurting more than helping.”

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