Leftist set to succeed grand old 'king' of Portugal in race for Portugal's presidency vote Portugal votes to replace retiring grand old man

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The campaign for tomorrow's presidential elections has reflected the general mood of the Portuguese people: laid-back for the most part, interrupted by bursts of agitation. Torrential rainstorms, the worst in more than 60 years, have jolted people's lives more than the election campaign, though passions flared in the closing days.

All but two contenders pulled out of the race this week, so tomorrow will see a straight fight between the mild Socialist former mayor of Lisbon, Jorge Sampaio, and the conservative former prime minister, Anibal Cavaco Silva.

Mr Cavaco is better known, having led a 10-year conservative government before the Socialist election win last year. But Mr Sampaio is favourite to succeed Mario Soares, who bows out after the maximum 10 years as president during which he became Portugal's most loved and respected politician.

Should Mr Sampaio win, the Socialists would control the presidency, parliament and the big cities. He has been consistently ahead and the latest poll gives him the support of 53.1 per cent of voters, 13.2 per cent ahead of his rival (though an earlier poll put him only four points ahead).

Lisbon seems almost bare of election posters, in contrast to the hectic campaign of last October when a Socialist victory marked a political turn-around.

Sceptics point out that the government has delayed announcing a stringent budget until tomorrow's contest is out of the way, to give Mr Sampaio a fair wind.

The presidency is more than a ceremonial post; the president can dissolve parliament if the government runs into difficulties, an important consideration with the Socialists four votes short of an overall majority, and can delay legislation.

The post is non-partisan; the Socialist Mr Soares succeeded so brilliantly in recycling himself as leader of all Portuguese that he is affectionately dubbed "The King".

The two candidates cannot, therefore, offer policy options. Mr Cavaco went so far as to hand in his Social Democratic Party card. They can only undertake a charm offensive to convince voters of their personal suitability. Neither is particularly charismatic, but as one observer noted yesterday: "Sampaio is more enigmatic, so people have less against him."

But party politicking is barely veiled. Mr Sampaio, while urging consensus, says a new age has dawned and suggests that voters have already thrown out everything Mr Cavaco represents. Mr Cavaco stresses his experience and his Catholicism - swipes at Mr Sampaio, who has never held national office and is both atheist and Jewish.

Mr Cavaco's message and his austere manner go down well in the conservative, Catholic northern part of the country. But they seem at odds with a broad trend towards moderate change, and Mr Sampaio's more easy-going style.