ATHENS (Reuters) - Antonis Samaras swallowed his fear of hecklers, took off his jacket and mingled with the crowd, part of an energetic makeover that the veteran conservative leader hopes will win Sunday’s election and save Greece.
In a country where politicians are routinely spattered with yoghurt or pelted with eggs by furious voters, his walkabout in the town of Corinth over the weekend counts as a bold move.
After spectacularly botching an election last month that he called himself - with a muddled message and a misfired campaign against the wrong enemy - Samaras, 62, now appears to have learnt his lesson and is hitting his stride.
But with just days left before a repeat election that could determine Greece’s future in the euro currency, he has little time left to end a surge by a radical leftist who could ride anger against economic crisis into the premiership.
The newly-focused Samaras is determined to persuade Greeks - nearly 80 percent of whom want to keep the euro - that his New Democracy party is the only choice to prevent economic collapse and a catastrophic return to the old Greek currency.
“The drachma means death right now,” Samaras told Greek TV on Sunday, pounding in the message.
Samaras forced the election in May expecting that Greeks would punish New Democracy’s decades-old rivals, the Socialists, and give him a majority. Instead, Greeks humiliated both of the parties that had alternated in power for generations, denying Samaras a majority and forcing a repeat vote on June 17.
Radical leftist Alexis Tsipras - whose SYRIZA party opposes the 130 billion euro bailout agreed in March by a coalition of New Democracy and the Socialists - is now neck and neck with Samaras in polls.
SYRIZA vows to cancel the bailout, nationalise banks and freeze privatisations. Tsipras, 37, has won a huge following among the young, more than half of whom are unemployed, and his rise has been the main story of Greek politics for outsiders.
But less spectacularly, Samaras has also raised his game. Most of the last published polls show him winning about a quarter of the vote - up from the 19 percent he won on May 6 - and slightly edging SYRIZA for the all important prize of first place, which comes with a bonus of 50 extra seats in the 300-seat parliament.
“New Democracy clearly has a better campaign and Samaras is listening to more people,” said political analyst John Loulis. “The battle is being fought over the euro and his ads send a clear message.”
Going into the last election, it seemed clear to Samaras who the enemy was: his familiar arch foe Evangelos Venizelos, the burly, formidable leader of the Socialists, who had borne the brunt of public anger over Greece’s economic mismanagement.
It was Venizelos, then finance minister, who had negotiated two big EU bailouts. Samaras and the conservatives had opposed the first bailout in 2010, but joined a national unity government and backed this year’s second bailout in parliament.
On the campaign trail, Samaras repeatedly hammered Venizelos and said the second bailout needed to be renegotiated, which only confused voters as to why he had in fact supported it. He met citizens only in small, controlled meetings, where he defended his decision to join the coalition.
Meanwhile, he overlooked the spectacular rise of Tsipras, whose casual style and good looks were attracting young Greeks, furious at the bailout’s austerity terms.
“He thought he was fighting this huge monster Venizelos. Nobody told him the biggest threat would be from little Tsipras,” a New Democracy official said.
Isolated from the public for fear of being heckled, politicians relied on opinion polls showing New Democracy leading and the Socialists following. But the polls were more volatile than ever, and pollsters said Greeks were so angry with austerity that they were behaving unpredictably.
Worried about a centre-right anti-bailout splinter group and the rise of the extreme nationalist Golden Dawn - which went on to win about 7 percent of the vote - Samaras shifted his party line to the right, veering off economic issues to campaign on nationalist and anti-immigrant themes.
“That was bad judgment,” said a New Democracy official. “He should have opened up to the centre. But he only listened to a 2-3 advisers and was out of touch with people.”
On the night of the election, New Democracy activists were planning to celebrate a triumph, only to slowly realise as the results came in that the outcome was a fiasco.
A planned victory speech by Samaras never took place. The next day, party officials bought each other consolation drinks at the coffee shop at New Democracy’s headquarters, clearly in a state of shock.
Far from winning an outright majority, Samaras emerged with too few seats even to form a pro-bailout coalition with the Socialists, who were beaten into third place by Tsipras.
After bitter coalition talks failed, Greece was headed into a repeat election, with the euro zone shaken by the prospect that Tsipras could now place first and abandon the bailout.
This time around, there is no longer any doubt over who the enemy is. New Democracy and SYRIZA exchange several polemical statements daily, ignoring most other parties.
“Samaras has learned from his mistakes and he has opened up to opinions from more people. He listened,” said a New Democracy figure who has been critical of Samaras.
He unashamedly brought back to the fold party rebel Dora Bakoyanni, whom he had expelled for backing the first bailout in 2010. Instead of remaining aloof, he now goes on pre-election walkabouts, smiling and shaking hands at coffee shops.
Gone are the nationalist-themed TV ads that New Democracy deployed in the last campaign to appeal to the right, with images of Alexander the Great and Istanbul’s Saint Sophia church.
Now, the party’s ads relentlessly make the case that SYRIZA’s radicals cannot be trusted. In one ad, Greek flags are lowered among the banners of other euro zone countries. In another, school children ask their teacher why Greece is not in the euro.
It remains to be seen whether that will be enough to stop Tsipras and the wave of public anger at traditional parties.
Like Samaras, Tsipras is learning. SYRIZA briefly moderated its anti-bailout message after May 6, but quickly went back on the offensive. Pollsters said that with every aggressive statement, ratings went up.
“The bailout deal aims to bring society to poverty and despair and will of course end all discussion about growth,” Tsipras told a rally on the island of Chios on Sunday.
Reaching beyond its core of young, urban supporters, SYRIZA is now targeting older voters and the countryside, with Tsipras making more trips out of Athens than in the previous campaign.
SYRIZA’s TV ads have also changed - from the drawn faces of average Greeks suffering salary and pension cuts, it has switched to negative ads showing other parties denouncing the bailout and then voting for it in parliament.
SYRIZA officials acknowledge that even they were taken by surprise by their sudden rise. “We scrambled to set up mechanisms such as a press office,” said one SYRIZA official. “We weren’t ready for this, that’s for sure.”
Reporting by Dina Kyriakidou; Editing by Peter Graff