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CARACAS (Reuters) - Remarks by acting President Nicolas Maduro that were widely perceived as a homophobic slur against opposition rival Henrique Capriles have further stirred Venezuela's acrimonious election campaign.
Capriles, 40, was the target of racial and sexual innuendoes by the late leader Hugo Chavez's supporters throughout last year's presidential race: one cartoon shown on state media depicted him in pink shorts with a Nazi swastika on one arm.
Maduro, 50, is running in an April 14 election to replace Chavez, who was also vilified and mocked by foes throughout his 14-year socialist rule of Venezuela.
In a flurry of back-and-forth insults and accusations from both camps, Maduro appeared to revive last year's line of attack over Capriles' sexuality at a rally this week.
"I do have a wife, you know? I do like women!" said Maduro, who has also called Capriles "a little princess."
The comment drew hoots of laughter from supporters, some shouting explicit insults against the opposition leader.
That infuriated backers of Capriles, whom polls show has an uphill struggle to beat Maduro. Three months before he died of cancer, Chavez named Maduro as his preferred heir to lead the OPEC nation with the world's biggest oil reserves.
"I believe in a society where no one feels excluded due to their way of thinking, race, beliefs or sexual orientation," Capriles, a single 40-year-old state governor, said in response to Maduro's comments.
Capriles has had high-profile girlfriends in the past and has said he hopes to find a wife and start a family soon.
Last year, a state TV commentator showed purported police documents saying Capriles had been found having sex in a car with another man.
A hate figure for his many detractors, Chavez was depicted as an uncouth clown and was subjected to constant mockery and insults, including photos of apes with his face superimposed.
This time, mocking images of Maduro driving a bus - his former job - are circulating among anti-government factions.
Images of guns pointed at TVs showing Capriles' image are also doing the rounds, triggering a formal opposition complaint.
One local non-governmental organization, the Venezuela Affirmative Union, said Maduro should apologize for his comments.
"A while back he called the opposition 'little gays'. As defenders of human rights, we protested and he apologized on that occasion," said the group's coordinator, Jose Ramon Merentes.
"Now he's relapsed and shown a homophobic attitude that seeks to appeal to Latin America's macho culture in order to denigrate the opposition candidate and take votes off him."
While websites buzzed with debate, one group argued that Maduro should not be judged too harshly, saying both sides needed to rein themselves in.
"Hugo Chavez's policies have promoted inclusion and non-discrimination for 14 years," said Luis Meneses, president of the Venezuelan Society for Sexual Diversity. "We condemn the use of discriminatory words or images, wherever they come from. Both sides need to show tolerance and respect."
Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Kieran Murray; desking by Christopher Wilson