Caetes, Brazil: For millions of Brazilian voters, Sunday's election is more about the president they are losing than the one they will gain.

In eight years, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has presided over a historic mass exodus from poverty and the rise of a free-spending middle class.

He also helped make Brazil an economic and diplomatic leader, all the while keeping Wall Street happy, an achievement that many would have believed laughably unlikely back in 2002, when investors were terrified of his left-wing past.

Lula is not allowed under the constitution to seek a third consecutive term, but he is still the undisputed star of this campaign and his handpicked candidate, Dilma Rousseff of the ruling Workers' Party, is riding his popularity to almost certain victory.

History books will give the 64-year-old former shoeshine boy and metalworker mixed reviews because he failed in his second four-year term to implement major economic reforms that analysts say Brazil needs to extend its run of prosperity.

Such talk is close to heresy here in Caetes, the dusty northeastern town near where Lula was born and from where, in 1952 and aged 7, he joined a mass migration to the wealthy south on a flat-bed truck with his mother and seven brothers and sisters.

Here, he is simply "the man."

Many residents well up at the mention of Lula's name, underscoring the powerful emotional bond he has formed with people as Brazil's first working-class president.

"He never forgot his roots," said Maria da Penha, the principal of Aloisio Souto Pinto high school, which sits among fields of cassava and maize near Caetes that have barely changed since Lula's childhood. "It's a shame he's leaving. It's like we are losing our father."

Sunday's presidential vote will be the first since Brazil's return to democracy in 1985 without Lula's name on the ballot. But you wouldn't know that from his constant, galvanizing presence in rallies and on television.

As he planned, the election has been far more a plebiscite on his rule than a test of the merits of Rousseff, his former chief of staff who is running for office for the first time.

"The offense we are causing them is that we are proving that a metalworker is able to govern better than all the doctors who governed this country throughout history," Lula said at one of many campaign rallies this month.

Lula, who will hand over power to his successor on Jan. 1, has sky-high approval ratings of around 80 percent and is a symbol of Brazil's transformation from crisis-prone basket case to an increasingly prosperous emerging power.

In a pep-talk that the charismatic Lula might have been proud of, Penha told a class of about 25 teenagers last week that "he is an example for us -- that if you want to study and grow, it doesn't matter where you came from."

These students are poor, and they still travel to school along dirt roads on flat-bed trucks like the one that Lula rode for 13 days as a boy when he moved to Sao Paulo state. But none of them have to quit school to work instead, as Lula did, partly thanks a government program that gives parents a monthly stipend if their children attend school.

Lula did not invent the program, known as Bolsa Familia, but he greatly expanded it in his first term, helping to lift more than 20 million Brazilians out of acute poverty.

In the town square in Caetes, schoolchildren chat online and play games during their breaks using basic laptop computers they each received under another Lula-backed initiative.

Moving into history

Still, Brazil's education standards lag those of its big emerging economy rivals and it is one area where Lula may be judged as having done too little, too late. Add the bloated civil service, rigid labor market and deadening bureaucracy as other areas untouched by major reform.

The plain-speaking former union boss has been Brazil's "lucky president," critics say, coasting along on the crest of a wave of Chinese-led demand for Brazilian soy, iron ore and other commodities.

"All these guys pay a price when they move into history. I think his price will be that nothing really happened during his second term domestically," said Riordan Roett, head of Latin American studies at Washington's Johns Hopkins University.

"That will be counterbalanced by the incredible ability Lula has to project Brazil's image outside the country."

Lula's successes in his first term included an overhaul of the pension system, the expansion of Bolsa Familia and stabilizing a volatile economy through a mix of fiscal discipline and anti-inflationary policies.

His second term, which followed a graft scandal that tarnished his Workers' Party in 2005, was marked more by foreign policy forays as Lula put Brazil at the center of global policymaking on trade and the environment, and expanded so-called "south-south" ties with other emerging economies.

Yet he is not bowing out without regrets, mainly his failure to reform the undisciplined and corruption-prone political system and Brazil's sclerotic tax structure, which is a long-running nightmare for businesses.

"Those are the two things that most frustrated the president," Gilberto Carvalho, a top aide to Lula, told Reuters, adding that the failure to remove many bureaucratic obstacles to infrastructure projects was a close third.

Lula has promised a "big silence" after he steps down to avoid giving the impression he is interfering with his successor, and he will instead focus on projects to improve ties between Africa and Latin America, Carvalho said.

Still, many followers hope he will run again for president in four or eight years time, and he has not ruled it out.

In Caetes, Lula's failures pale in comparison to the improvement that people feel in their lives.

"We don't like him because he was poor, but because he was strong, didn't give up and overcame all the obstacles in the way," said Joseane Pereira da Silva, an 18-year-old student at the school who said he aspires to be a geography teacher.