* Chavez says would be "ashamed" to debate Capriles
* Opposition candidate chides presidents for insults
* President retains double-digit lead in poll
By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS, June 18 Venezuela's President Hugo
Chavez ruled out on Monday holding a pre-election debate with
opponent Henrique Capriles, saying he would be "ashamed" to
measure himself against such a "non-entity."
Stepping up the rhetoric in the polarized South American
nation's run-up to the Oct. 7 vote, Capriles replied that
Venezuelans were tired of the socialist leader's stream of
Battling a recurrence of cancer that has kept him off the
street, Chavez, 57, leads most major opinion polls by a
double-digit margin and officials are exuding confidence of a
comfortable re-election win.
Capriles' camp, though, insists some polls are skewed, many
Venezuelans are scared of expressing their real opinions, and
their grassroots campaigning is beginning to make headway.
Asked at a news conference if he would be prepared to debate
Capriles, Chavez replied: "I'd be ashamed because what you have
there is nothing ... I'd have liked to face a heavyweight, not a
Since Capriles, a center-left young state governor, won the
opposition coalition's primary in February, Chavez has not
mentioned him by name, preferring to use a stream of insults
including "pig" and "loser".
Capriles has sought to focus his campaign on Venezuelans'
daily problems - crime, unemployment and stuttering social
services - rather than be drawn into a rhetorical fight.
Yet he responded sharply on Monday to Chavez's latest salvo.
"The candidate of backwardness could never debate with
anyone, he only knows how to insult and discredit people - a
worn-out and tedious speech," he said via Twitter.
LATEST POLL GIVES CHAVEZ 17-POINT LEAD
Capriles also mocked the president's comments this week
about seeking to send a second Venezuelan satellite into space
with Chinese help, saying he should first resolve more pressing
issues of ill-equipped hospitals and crime.
"Will our people's problems be resolved putting a satellite
into orbit? Will they do away with violence from outer space?"
The latest opinion poll, published by local company
Hinterlaces on Monday, gave Chavez 51 percent of voter
intentions versus 34 percent for Capriles.
Though that was a fall by two percentage points for Chavez
from his showing in the same pollster last month, it still
represented a formidable gap for the opposition.
Chavez appears to have won considerable sympathy for his
cancer, while his popularity among the poor remains high due to
heavy spending on welfare projects and his personal charisma.
Despite his cancer treatment, the president has been
increasingly active in the last two weeks, appearing more
frequently on state media and attending several events in
person. He addressed Monday's news conference of the ruling
Socialist Party by telephone, however.
Capriles, who by contrast projects an image of youth and
energy, is drawing large crowds on his daily visits to remote
corners of Venezuela and is promising a Brazilian-style "modern
left" government should he unseat Chavez.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)