CARACAS Venezuela's verbose Hugo Chavez is reaching out to voters with tweets sent as text messages to even the most basic mobile phones as the socialist president fights a vigorous opposition campaign in the Twitter-mad country ahead of an October 7 election.
Chavez has had three cancer operations in the last year and his delicate health means he has not been able to travel anywhere near as much as his younger rival, Henrique Capriles.
Instead, he has had to focus on making regular state TV appearances - usually for several hours at a time, almost every day of late - and pontificating via his @chavezcandanga Twitter account, which has nearly 3.2 million followers.
The president's online persona is an important part of his team's strategy in an election battle that is shaping into the toughest fight of his political life.
Spurred by an explosion in Twitter's popularity in Venezuela and annoyed at what he said was the opposition's domination of local electronic media, Chavez began tweeting in early 2010.
His account quickly overtook one belonging to Globovision, the main opposition TV station, and he soon said he had needed to hire 200 people to help him read and respond to what he called an "avalanche" of messages from supporters, requests for help, and complaints about faulty services and corruption.
Delighted with his cyber success, he even urged Cuba's Fidel Castro and Bolivia's Evo Morales to start tweeting too.
The three men are arguably Latin America's most vocal left-wing critics of what they denounce as the U.S. "empire."
VENEZUELA'S MOST FOLLOWED
While the 57-year-old Chavez says he is completely cured of cancer, his recuperation means he has had to watch while Capriles, a 40-year-old former state governor, spent months crisscrossing the OPEC nation on a "house by house" tour.
On Sunday, Capriles is due to lead a large march through the capital Caracas in what the diverse opposition coalition hopes will be its latest show of strength and unity behind its candidate.
Most opinion polls still give Chavez a double-digit lead, and on Friday he launched a series of campaign events describing his recovery as "a miracle" and seeking to capitalize on the deep emotional ties that even his fiercest critics concede he shares with Venezuela's poor majority.
The SMS service was unveiled late on Friday and is aimed at the many Venezuelans who have no easy access to the Web and would like to receive tweets by "el comandante" via SMS message.
"The initiative will (also) let people without Twitter accounts receive the messages," said state-run news agency AVN.
Supporters who register at www.chavezcandanga.org.ve can choose to receive his tweets in real time, or avoid being woken up by choosing just those he posts between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Chavez's number of followers - many of whom must have signed up at least partly out of curiosity about how the former soldier famed for his hours-long speeches works with a 140-character limit - currently puts him at 179th in the world, just behind Jamaican-American hip hop star Sean Kingston.
By comparison, the top spot is held by singer Lady Gaga with more than 27 million followers. Capriles, on the other hand, has 1 million - about a third as many as Venezuela's president.
"Good morning, Patriotic World!" Chavez said in one fairly typical tweet on Saturday, adding that he was on his way to lead what would be another lengthy televised ceremony at a military base in Caracas. "Long live our Soldiers!"
(Editing by Jackie Frank)