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Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, who is running for reelection with the Workers Party (PT), left, and Workers Party Sao Paulo gubernatorial candidate Alexandre Padilha, right, wave to supporters at a campaign rally in Santos, Brazil, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. Brazil will hold general elections on Oct. 5.

Andre Penner/AP

Early in her life, Dilma Rousseff paid a high price for her political convictions. Arrested by Brazil's military dictatorship while working for the leftist underground in 1970, she was brutally tortured in an effort to make her give up information on her comrades. She didn't crack. "One of the things you find out is that you are utterly alone," she said, in a rare conversation with an author a decade ago about surviving interrogation.

Forty years later, Ms. Rousseff's political environment has altered dramatically. Today she is this country's President, in a tight race for re-election. But her basic beliefs appear unchanged: "We believed that it was possible to make a Brazil that was more equal," she said about her youthful goals. She used nearly the same phrase at her inauguration in 2011.

Ms. Rousseff is still, however, alone.

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She now holds a narrow lead in a critical election for Brazil ahead of the Oct. 5 vote, facing an electorate much changed since she became the country's first female president four years ago.

Her chief opponent this time is Marina Silva, a black woman who grew up illiterate tapping rubber in the rain forest. So compelling is Ms. Silva's personal story that it has largely eclipsed Ms. Rousseff's own – and yet it is possible to see, for better and for worse, how it led her here, scrambling to keep control of the project to build a better Brazil that she started long ago.

The election in which she became President was the first Ms. Rousseff ever fought. She was hand-picked by the previous president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in whose cabinet she had served as a sort of chief minister. He ended his second term hugely popular but prevented by the constitution from running again – and his protégés were charged with corruption.

So Ms. Rousseff, a deft technocrat, got the nod. And on the strength of Brazil's booming economy and a series of social programs that had lifted more than 30 million people out of poverty, she was elected by a comfortable margin.

But in this election, Ms. Rousseff fights on her own record, and it is not as strong as Mr. da Silva's. The fault is not hers alone – the slowing of Chinese demand for food and commodities has hit the Brazilian economy hard, and growth has flat-lined. But Ms. Rousseff also carries some of the blame: for a lack of transparency about economic policy, creeping inflation and delayed infrastructure projects. It doesn't help that she has little of Mr. da Silva's ability to connect with crowds, large or small.

"She never became a politician," says Jose Anibal, who has known Ms. Rousseff since their days in the underground. Today, he is a member of Congress for the conservative opposition. "She hasn't won people over. … I thought she would be a pragmatist, continuing the best things about Lula's government, but also be more realistic [about the economy]. Instead she's been authoritarian, acting on her own, and she has led the country into an economic mess that she tries to paper over [with social programs]. … I don't think she has friends or people she's close to and talks to, or develops ideas and programs with."

When she was sworn in, Ms. Rousseff vowed to continue the social programs that had proved so successful, and fully eliminate poverty. But with the expansion of the middle class, there are new demands on government – for better public services, particularly health, education and transportation. These bubbled over into widespread public demonstrations 15 months ago, countered by heavy-handed riot police.

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Ms. Rousseff, born in 1947, grew up in the upper-middle class in the mining city of Belo Horizonte, the child of a Brazilian teacher and a Bulgarian Communist who emigrated to Brazil in the 1930s. The military seized power in Brazil as she entered university. Ms. Rousseff and her friends came to believe that only an armed struggle would return the country to democracy, and allow it to progress to socialism. Before long, she was living under a series of assumed identities, organizing bank robberies, recruiting guerrillas and transporting weapons. (She has said she never directly participated in violent actions.) Soon, she was on the dictatorship's most-wanted list; they caught up with her, handgun in her purse, at a meeting in a Sao Paulo bar in 1970.

She was taken to a military base, where, over three years, she was beaten and electrocuted. In an interview with Luiz Maklouf for his book The Women of the Armed Struggle, she described the terror of huddling naked, crusted in blood, on a filthy cell floor, dreading the return to the interrogation room. She was determined not to give up information on her colleagues, she said. "The way of I resisted was to say to myself, 'In a little while I will tell them everything I know … in a little while, a little while' – and then you keep going – you can only think about that little while. You can't think about the pain."

She never cracked, she told Mr. Maklouf, and suggested she had few regrets. "We did a lot of silly things but that doesn't characterize us – what characterizes us is having dared to want to build a better country."

Ms. Rousseff has quietly supported efforts to repeal the amnesty law that shields the generals in Brazil's former dictatorship from prosecution, but has not publicly demanded it.

Released from jail, she earned a degree in economics and became a bureaucrat in the new democracy. She rose quickly in the civil service until she was in charge of energy policy in a southern state, where she first crossed paths with Mr. da Silva, early in his initial term as president. In 2003, he made her minister for mines and energy, where she excelled. Two years later, she became civil minister, a sort of executive minister post at the head of government.

Ms. Rousseff has taken a tougher stance on corruption than previous governments, but Brazilians' tolerance has dropped. "She is honest, has integrity – that's without question – but the people she has around her, that's another story," Mr. Anibal said. She cannot be unaware of their actions, he added.

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Ms. Rousseff was briefly married to a fellow guerrilla in the late 1960s; they divorced and she began a long relationship with a second rebel, with whom she has a daughter. They separated in 2000, but today have an amicable relationship. Their daughter is a judge and the parent of a young son over whom Ms. Rousseff dotes, in some of her more accessible public moments. Ms. Rousseff shares the presidential residence in Brasilia with her mother.

"We are from a generation that didn't have time to play, who became adults very early," said Roberto Espinosa, a professor of international politics at the Federal University of Sao Paulo and another former comrade-in-arms, who stayed close to Ms. Rousseff, through her years as a bookish civil servant. Those experiences shape her governing style, he said. "We do our part, and we demand that other people do theirs."

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