* Centrist state governor lost to Chavez in 2012 vote
* Will lead opposition coalition again in April 14 poll
* Athletic 40-year-old admires Brazil's political model
By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS, March 11 Playing basketball with locals
and shuttling between slums, Venezuelan opposition leader
Henrique Capriles exuded youthful energy in last year's
punishing presidential race.
Yet he ended up exhausted, quaffing Red Bull energy drink to
keep going - and ultimately devastated at his loss to Hugo
Now Capriles, 40, has to do it all again.
The centrist governor of Miranda state, who says Venezuelan
should follow the soft-left path of Brazil, is trailing in polls
and faces an uphill road to election day on April 14.
Capriles's opponent is Chavez's preferred successor Nicolas
Maduro, who became acting president after his boss's death from
cancer last week.
"Even though they've done everything they can to make it as
hard as possible for me ... I want to tell our people, from deep
down and trusting in God, that I am going to fight for you all!
Nicolas, I'm not giving you a free pass," he said.
If beating Chavez - near-invincible thanks to his legendary
charisma, connection with the poor and oil-financed state
resources - was a Herculean challenge, defeating his anointed
heir in a highly emotional atmosphere may be just as hard.
Capriles, a lean and sports-loving lawyer who is a regular
at Caracas half-marathons, won a creditable 44 percent of the
vote last year, the opposition's best showing against Chavez in
a presidential vote.
FACING 'CHAVEZ'S GHOST'
Women screamed at the bachelor candidate like a pop star at
every campaign stop, many shouting "marry me!" Polls at the time
showed him more popular than any of the president's allies.
But Chavez's naming of Maduro as his heir apparent has
imbued the former bus driver with some of his aura and
transformed his profile. Two recent polls have put Capriles more
than 10 percentage points behind.
"This election is not going to be about Capriles versus
Maduro, it'll be Capriles against Chavez's ghost," said a
Western diplomat in Caracas.
"And how can Chavez supporters go against his dying wishes?
Virtually his final words in public were 'vote for Maduro.'"
Capriles' electoral chances will hinge on maintaining the
hard-won unity that served the opposition well in the 2012
campaign and ended more than a decade of in-fighting, intrigue
and policy differences among several dozen political factions.
Some in the older generation of opposition leaders feel he
sidelined them during last year's campaign, and they will be
looking for more of a say this time in return for support.
The biggest challenge, though, will be countering the Chavez
"sympathy" factor, the popularity of government welfare programs
among the poor, and the huge institutional advantages that
Maduro has as the incumbent.
Advised by Brazilian strategists, Capriles made day-to-day
problems such as shocking murder rates, runaway prices, power
cuts, potholes, housing shortages and corruption the heart of
his 2012 campaign.
He is likely to repeat the tactic, shifting voters'
attention away from the emotion over Chavez and casting Maduro
as the wrong man to fix problems.
After months of testy rhetoric between Maduro and Capriles
before Chavez's death, the campaign turned ugly on Sunday.
Capriles accused Maduro of using Chavez's body as a campaign
prop. "You are exploiting someone who is no longer here because
you have nothing else to offer the country ... I don't play with
death, I don't play with suffering, like that," he said.
Minutes later, Maduro accused Capriles of sowing hate.
"You wretched loser!" he responded. "You can see the
disgusting face of the fascist that he is."
Last year, government supporters threw racist and homophobic
taunts at Capriles, who has Jewish roots and lost
great-grandparents in the Treblinka concentration camp in
German-occupied Poland during World War Two.
Despite his family background, Capriles is a devout
Catholic, who says his faith deepened during a four-month stint
in jail for his role in a confused fracas at the Cuban Embassy
in 2002. He wears a rosary and often visits a shrine on
Though he has cultivated a man-on-the-street image, dressing
and talking simply, Capriles comes from a wealthy family, and
class prejudices are sure to figure in the campaign.
Earlier this month, Maduro scoffed at a private trip by
Capriles to Miami and New York, calling him a "little prince of
the parasitical bourgeoisie."
If he were to win, Capriles says, he would copy Brazil's
"modern left" model of economic and social policies. "I'm 100
percent Lula," he says, referring to former Brazilian leader
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Capriles says he would stop nationalizations but only
gradually dismantle some of the most radical Chavez-era statist
economic policies, including currency and price controls, to
He denies accusations by the government of wanting to scrap
its social programs for the poor or privatize state oil company
PDVSA, saying in both cases he simply wants to de-politicize
institutions and improve efficiency.
Though describing himself as progressive, Capriles belongs
to the conservative Primero Justicia (First Justice) party,
which he helped found in 2000. Foes say he is really an
"ultra-right" politician in the pocket of Venezuela's pro-U.S.
traditional elite, but masquerading as a progressive.
On foreign policy, he wants to cool Venezuela's relations
with faraway Chavez-era allies like Iran and Belarus - and stop
oil subsidies to political allies like Cuba - while improving
ties with the West, particularly the United States.
(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta; Editing by Kieran Murray
and Mohammad Zargham)