She is a former Marxist guerrilla whose organisation once stole $2.5 million from the safe of the governor of São Paulo.
Locked up and tortured by the dictatorship which ran Brazil during the 1970s, she was once branded by a prosecutor as the “Joan of Arc of subversion”.
Yet in less than a month’s time Dilma Rousseff is on course to become Brazil’s first woman president, entrusted with running the largest and fastest-growing economy in Latin America.
Her first election campaign has gathered the apparently unstoppable force of a steamroller and Ms Rousseff is likely to win the first round of voting outright.
If she pulls it off, it would seem like a miracle for a 62-year-old apparatchik who has never before been elected to any political post and who was unknown to most of Brazil’s 192 million people a few months ago - until you look to see who is behind the wheel of the steamroller.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the most popular president in Brazilian history, is ineligible to run for a third four-year term, and has given Ms Rousseff, his former political adviser, his unflinching support.
It will be the first time his name has not been on a ballot paper of some kind since democracy was restored to Brazil in 1985, but, he joked, “to fill that void I will change my name and I will call myself Dilma Rousseff”.
Lula, 64, has enjoyed record poll ratings of over 80 per cent in his eight years of power, especially among the poor, who worship the man who rose from being a shoeshine boy to become president.
Since 2004, the number of Brazilians living in poverty fell from almost half to under a quarter. Unemployment has fallen and the economy has boomed, helped by the discovery of vast oil reserves. Brazil is to host the 2016 Olympics and the 2014 World Cup - producing a wave of optimism and energy.
“Here in Brazil we treat presidential campaigns like sambas: if we hear a good one, we go with it,” said Araken de Carvalho, a travel agent, drinking coffee in São Paulo, the country’s business capital. “It’s more about the way the band plays than what is really going on. Dilma’s is a very good samba.”
If the election were held today, according to recent polls, Ms Rousseff would pick up 50 per cent of the vote, putting her far ahead of her main rival José Serra, a former health minister, on 28 per cent.
Her extraordinary success, despite her own lack of pzazz, owes much to slick, Hollywood-style television advertisements which have linked her firmly to Lula - and made a powerful first impression in a country which still has high levels of illiteracy.
In Ms Rousseff’s first such 10-minute broadcast the camera soared over scenes of Brazil until she came into focus, declaring: “With Lula, we learnt to move forwards... Now we must continue advancing. Brazil doesn’t want to stop, and can’t stop.” On banks of the Amazon, Lula was shown declaring a new era – and Ms Rousseff the person to lead Brazil.
“The Oscar for best supporting actor certainly goes to Lula,” said Dr Timothy Power, director of Oxford University’s Latin American Centre.
“Many weren’t aware of who Rousseff was until that first campaign programme, but once people knew she was Lula’s candidate, they backed her.”
Ms Rousseff’s campaign has been helped by donations which exceed all her rivals combined, plus a make-over transforming her from stern-looking technocrat into “the mother of all Brazil,” as Lula calls her. Gone are the gaudily-coloured jackets and wire-framed glasses, with Ms Rousseff sporting carefully-applied make-up and elegant suits.
She has also been encouraged to show a more personal side, talking about overcoming lymphoma cancer, and discussing her hopes of becoming a grandmother.
“I am going to govern this country with the attention of a mother, the care of a mother, and the strength of a mother,” she said.
For someone who was once an active member of an armed Marxist group, fighting to overthrow the dictatorship, it is quite a change.
The daughter of a middle class Bulgarian immigrant and a schoolteacher in Belo Horizonte, southeastern Brazil, she realised upon leaving a privileged school that the world was “not a place for debutantes”.
She was 16 when Brazil fell prey to a military coup in 1964 and like many was soon drawn into the world of underground opposition.
Introduced to Marxist politics by the man who became her first husband, Claudio Galeno, she helped build up one of the guerrilla organisations trying to overthrow the government - at one point spending three years in prison.
After democracy was restored she had a daughter, Paula, now a 33-year-old lawyer, with her second husband Carlos Araújo, a revolutionary leader who had met Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. She trained as an economist she entered conventional left-wing politics and professional public service.
In 2001, by now divorced again, she joined Lula’s Workers’ Party and her experience in the country’s energy ministry quickly impressed the new president. A cabinet job as energy minister followed before she was appointed his chief of staff in 2005.
But many have questioned how she can be running for the presidency.
Critics say she was simply the last senior Lula crony standing since one aide after another was forced to quit in scandals over alleged slush funds, bribery or blackmail - including, last week, her own former aide who had followed in her footsteps as Lula’s chief of staff.
Her lumbering speaking style and lack of personal charisma do not make her an obvious candidate and - in what was seen as a thinly-veiled attempt to protect Ms Rousseff - the government made it illegal for television and radio broadcasters to make fun of the candidates.
Others wonder whether she has the skills needed to hold together the 14 parties of Lula’s business-friendly coalition, dominated by his Workers’ Party, or to keep it to the pro-business approach that Lula, a former trade unionist, adopted.
Yet the only real obstacle between Ms Rousseff and the presidency is José Serra, 68, the leader of Brazil’s biggest opposition party, the centre-left Social Democrats (PSDB) - and his campaign has failed to take off.
Voters from São Paulo, the shiny heart of modern, professional Brazil, would not typically throw their support behind Lula. The educated wealthy elites baulk at his populist policies, and laugh at his rural, unpolished accent.
Yet in the latest poll of the province’s almost 40 million voters, Ms Rousseff was seven points ahead of her rival.
“I don’t think she is particularly nice, she doesn’t come across as pleasant and she isn’t charismatic,” said Gabriel Malard, 39, a trendily-dressed photography teacher in the central business district of São Paulo. “Her success is entirely down to Lula. But I’m still going to vote for her.”
Yet others have not been swayed. Carloz Vereza, a popular actor and political blogger, told The Sunday Telegraph: “Dilma doesn’t have any experience. She has always made appointments on the basis of party allegiance, not merit.
“Lula chose Dilma because Dilma means a third Lula term and the continuation of his populist-authoritarian project. She’s only doing so well in the polls because his government ignores all the institutional limits on power and manipulates the population through welfare programmes.”
He predicted that as president, Ms Rousseff would censor the media, appoint cronies to key jobs and turn Brazil into a “carbon copy” of Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, the country’s firebrand socialist leader.
Additional reporting: Philip Sherwell in New York and Andrew Downie in São Paulo