CARACAS Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez tore into opposition candidate Henrique Capriles again on Thursday, calling him a "low-life pig" in an ever-more vitriolic campaign ahead of the October election.
"Now we have the loser, welcome! We're going to pulverize you in the October 7 election," Chavez said of the Democratic Unity coalition candidate in a speech to an audience that included friend and U.S. actor Sean Penn.
"You have a pig's tail, a pig's ears, you snort like a pig, you're a low-life pig. You're a pig, don't try and hide it," the socialist leader added at the ceremony for graduating medical students in Vargas province.
Since his landslide win in the opposition primary last weekend, Capriles, the 39-year-old governor of Miranda state who comes from a wealthy family, has faced a barrage of verbal attacks and insults.
State commentators and Chavez supporters have questioned his sexuality and said his Jewish roots and "Zionism" are a menace, then paradoxically circulated a cartoon depicting him wearing a swastika. They also accuse him of being Washington's puppet.
"TAKE OFF YOUR MASK"
Capriles has sought to stay above the fray, saying he will not be drawn into a mudslinging contest with the president and prefers to stay focused on Venezuelans' day-to-day problems such as crime, unemployment and inflation.
An admirer of Brazil's economic model, Capriles describes himself as a center-left "progressive" and insists he will build on Chavez's flagship welfare policies.
Chavistas say the opposition has a secret agenda to dismantle the programs.
"The loser is avoiding me. His advisers tell him not to confront me. You will have to confront me or run away," Chavez said. "Now you say you're progressive, while at the same time saying you're socialist, Bolivarian," he added in a reference to South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
"Take off your mask. The only place you're going to govern is the land of Tarzan and his monkey Cheeta."
Chavez, a former soldier raised in a rural shack, has a strong connection with the country's majority poor.
Recent opinion polls have given him an edge for October over Capriles, who is seen as the strongest candidate the opposition has produced during Chavez's 13-year rule.
About a third of Venezuelans are undecided and competition for their votes will be intense.
Hollywood star Penn took the microphone at the ceremony, recounting how he once told Chavez that a photo of his children with the president could provoke charges in the United States that he was bringing them up as socialist revolutionaries.
"He said that is the second-best thing you can do. The first is to raise them in the white coats of doctors," Penn said, drawing applause from the students.
Chavez, 57, had surgery to remove a large malignant tumor from his pelvis last June. He has since declared himself cancer-free.
(Editing by Daniel Wallis and Xavier Briand)