* Capriles is opposition's best candidate in 14 years
* Campaign has gathered pace, personal style improved
* Polls show socialist Chavez still tough to beat
By Andrew Cawthorne
LA GUAIRA, Venezuela, Sept 25 The crowds are
bigger, his speeches slicker, and Venezuela's young opposition
leader Henrique Capriles is on a roll in a final, frenzied push
to end President Hugo Chavez's socialist rule.
With just 12 days left before the OPEC nation's presidential
election, the 40-year-old state governor is whipping up crowds
like never before, creeping up in the polls and becoming
increasingly aggressive in his attacks on Chavez's policies.
"We've never had a candidate like him," gushed shopkeeper
Andrea Gomez, 42, screaming at Capriles like a teenage girl at a
pop concert as he went by, blowing kisses during an open-top
cavalcade along the Caribbean coast north of Caracas.
"It's like Chavez in 1998, when he won the presidency. But
Henrique has surpassed that. He is closer to the people."
Capriles has clearly made big inroads among the working
class where Chavez has his power-base, but he still faces
suspicions - gleefully stoked by the government - that he will
end Chavez's popular welfare programs and is too much of a rich
Chavez, 58, is still a formidable campaigner and even his
opponents admit he has a genuine emotional connection with many
Venezuelans, especially the poor.
Yet while a majority of big pollsters still put Chavez in
front, two - Consultores 21 and Varianzas - have Capriles just
ahead, and his numbers have inched up in others.
Opposition activists insist the poll numbers are distorted
by a "fear factor" - for instance, government employees wary of
reprisals if they show support for Capriles - and therefore
underestimate their man's real popularity.
Either way, Capriles seems certain to have the best tilt at
Chavez that anyone has managed during his 14-year rule.
OPPOSITION'S BEST BET YET
Crisscrossing the country for most of 2012, the
business-friendly law graduate first won an opposition primary
with ease and has been gathering steam - and honing his style -
ever since en route to the Oct. 7 vote.
A devout Catholic who always wears a cross and often visits
shrines, the tireless Capriles has based his strategy on a
nationwide "house-by-house" tour. That has made him familiar to
voters from remote Amazon villages and Andean highlands to
cattle-ranching plains and city slums.
Dashing around the country by bus and plane, Capriles
typically visits three or four places a day, often joining in
games of basketball in a tactic that highlights his youth and
The contrast with Chavez - also famous for his energy but
more subdued on this campaign after two bouts with cancer - is
Knowing that support for him is guaranteed in Venezuela's
wealthier circles, where Chavez is widely hated, Capriles has
targeted the South American nation's grittier, poorer areas.
In the port city of La Guaira, some pockets of Chavez
supporters booed and threw plastic bottles, but thousands of
other residents gathered to cheer Capriles with fervor.
The wiry opposition leader bears scratches from female
admirers grabbing at him in the crowds, downs Red Bulls to keep
his energy up, and has earned the affectionate nickname "El
Flaquito" ("Skinny") from his fans.
By contrast, Chavez insultingly refers to him as "the
loser", the "candidate of the right" and, occasionally, a
"fascist" - a particularly offensive term to Capriles given his
maternal grandparents' suffering under the Nazis in Poland.
In recent days, he has eschewed an earlier moderate style
and is going for the jugular, attacking Chavez at every turn.
"The government's candidate has been in power for 14 years
and Barinas is the poorest state in Venezuela," he told a rally
on Monday in the agricultural region where Chavez was born,
after flying straight there from La Guaira, in Vargas state.
"He who forgets the land of his birth has no right to keep
ruling," Capriles jeered, in words intended to sting the
president, who makes much of his humble roots in the savannah.
When Chavez begins one of his hours-long speeches, his rival
sometimes Tweets mocking ripostes, contrasting for example the
country's daily problems with the socialist leader's aspiration
to be a global revolutionary and solve planetary woes.
In the last week, he has been waving Chavez's election
manifesto while scoffing at its pledges to "save mankind" and
strive for a "new international geopolitic" dynamic.
"He wants to take his revolution to the world, but who takes
care of the electricity cuts?" he asked this week, homing in on
one of the subjects most important to voters, who are also
worried about high crime rates, rising prices and lack of jobs.
Capriles constantly challenges Chavez to a TV debate.
And he has tried to capitalize on a string of bad news
headlines for the government in recent weeks, including two
refinery fires, the collapse of an important bridge and jail
riots, by claiming government mismanagement.
Though Capriles's campaign has momentum, few Venezuelans
underestimate Chavez. He may be less active than before, but he
retains the charismatic, folksy rhetoric that has served him so
well. State media ensure his appearances get blanket coverage
and are shown over and over.
And then there's the money. A ramping up of state spending
on social welfare programs - from house-building to allowances
for single mothers - is guaranteed to win votes, while state
institutions have barely concealed their use of official
resources to support Chavez's campaign.
"This is the fight of David against Goliath. David won. And
here is David with you," Capriles roared at the La Guaira rally
His own cheaper campaign relies on donations and
fund-raising by supporters - though he has plenty of well-heeled
backers. He is coy on exactly who finances him, but some wealthy
Venezuelan businessmen and exiles are thought to be helping out.
Capriles says he trusts the president's willingness to step
down if he loses. Yet more radical opposition activists believe
Chavez would do anything to stay in power, from rigging the vote
to sending armed supporters into the street.
While there are no official international monitors for the
election, the UNASUR group of South American nations is sending
an observer team, and a raft of local non-governmental groups
will be providing close scrutiny around the country.
Capriles's Democratic Unity coalition will be placing
witnesses at almost all the voting booths, as will the
government. In past elections, there have been plenty of
accusations of fraud in remote polling stations, but there has
not been evidence of widespread, centralized rigging that would
have tipped the result.
Many analysts say the unfair use of resources during the
campaign - specifically, Chavez's use of government institutions
- is likely to be a bigger factor than any fraud.
Chavez has said he would accept defeat, although he views
that possibility as less likely than - in a Biblical passage he
loves to quote - "a camel passing through the eye of a needle."