GUIGUE, Venezuela President Hugo Chavez's abuse of state resources for his re-election campaign and lack of personal contact with Venezuelans will cost him dearly at the October 7 vote, his opposition rival says.
In an interview on his campaign bus, Henrique Capriles contrasted Chavez's reliance on TV appearances with his own tireless crisscrossing of the country and said the president's use of public funds made it a David versus Goliath election clash.
The 40-year-old state governor, picked by Venezuela's opposition parties as their best hope for ending Chavez's nearly 14-year rule in South America's biggest oil exporter, said the socialist leader's support was ebbing away.
"I don't expect a photo finish. We're going to have a resounding victory," he told Reuters, hurtling between rallies in small towns around Lake Valencia, a region of sweltering agricultural plains rolling to jungle-clad mountains.
"I've never lost an election," the confident Capriles added, referring to his successful campaigns over the last 15 years to become Venezuela's youngest legislator, a mayor and then governor of Miranda state.
Opinion polls are hugely controversial in Venezuela and have given widely varying results throughout this campaign. But most of the best-known surveys give Chavez a solid double-digit lead, although one puts Capriles roughly level.
A couple of lesser-known pollsters give Capriles the lead.
The opposition believes many Venezuelans, intimidated by Chavez's authoritarian style and past reprisals in the job market against those who have voted against him, may be hiding their true intentions.
PRESENCE VS POSTERS
Sweating profusely and gulping water after a grueling walking tour of Guigue, a shabby settlement of bustling streets and small Chinese-run stores, Capriles said he had visited more than 150 towns and villages since the official campaign began.
"Physical presence beats posters," said Capriles, who hopes his youth and vigor will convey a message of change. "The government's candidate is only seen on billboards. I've been to more towns since July 1 than he probably has in 10 years."
The 58-year-old Chavez has looked more energetic in recent weeks than at any time in the past year, during which he underwent two rounds of surgery and lengthy periods of treatment in Cuba for an undisclosed form of pelvic cancer.
The president says he is completely cured and has returned both to his old jokey, talkative self, as well as a whirlwind schedule of near-daily TV appearances.
He has attended more than a dozen big rallies around the country, but he normally arrives riding on top of an open-top truck before speaking from a stage, unlike Capriles who plunges into homes and crowds wherever he goes.
Polls show most Venezuelans believe Chavez has overcome his illness, though doctors say that no one can declare themselves cancer-free until several years after the last recurrence.
Some skeptical opposition supporters think the president has manipulated the whole affair for sympathy, possibly on the advice of his friend and political mentor, Cuba's Fidel Castro.
"I don't want to join the speculation," Capriles said. "I hope it's been a complete recovery."
He did, however, joke that someone had called him a "great doctor" because as soon as he hit the streets after the formal campaign began, Chavez seemed to get better more quickly.
The opposition coalition, which groups about 30 parties and organizations from across the political spectrum, is angry at Chavez's use of lengthy TV addresses -- which all local channels must broadcast -- and what they allege is the plundering of state cash and equipment for his campaign.
"All the abuse, the use of public resources, the advantages he has, and the sense of 'I am the official candidate who believes himself above Venezuelans and sees himself equal to God,' I think that has a cost," Capriles said.
"And on October 7 we will see the cost of this abuse, in the defeat that the government has coming."
Chavez scoffs at those accusations, asking how he -- as president -- is supposed to hide his activities from the public.
The National Electoral Council has angered both sides, criticizing them for their use of the media and saying it would consider whether Capriles was breaking rules by frequently wearing a baseball cap featuring the Venezuelan flag.
Capriles said that was absurd, given that Chavez regularly appeared draped in the national colors. But it has prompted a mini-boom in sales of the "forbidden caps" by entrepreneurs.
"They sell between 600 and a thousand in an afternoon at our campaign headquarters!" Capriles laughed.
A law graduate from a wealthy family, Capriles wants to replace Chavez's statist policies with a "modern left" model of free markets with strong social policies, like in Brazil.
Capriles says he will maintain the best of Chavez's popular welfare programs, while only gradually dismantling controversial measures like price and currency controls and widespread nationalizations that have ranged from farms to oil refineries.
He also wants to steer Venezuela's international alliances away from Chavez's ideologically motivated friendships with the leaders of nations such as Iran, Belarus and Syria. For now, however, Capriles is only concerned with winning votes.
"I'm focusing my visits on the municipalities where the government won the last elections," he said as his bus left Guigue, where pockets of red-clad Chavez supporters had heckled his tour good-naturedly at several points along the route.
"Most of these towns have been made promises that were never fulfilled. There is a lot of disappointment."
Capriles' own promises include building 200,000 houses in his first year, creating 3 million jobs in six years and taming crime that almost all Venezuelans put as their number one worry.
(Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran Murray and Eric Beech)