CARACAS (Reuters) - Playing basketball with locals and shuttling between slums, Venezuela’s opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, exuded youth and energy in last year’s punishing presidential race.
Yet he ended up exhausted, quaffing Red Bull to keep going - and ultimately devastated at his loss to Hugo Chavez.
Now Capriles, 40, has to do it all again.
The governor of Miranda state, a centrist who sees Brazil’s mix of economic and social policies as the model to follow, is the overwhelming favorite to represent the opposition Democratic Unity coalition in an election following Chavez’s death from cancer.
He will face Chavez’s preferred successor, Nicolas Maduro.
If beating Chavez - whose legendary charisma, connection with the poor and oil-financed state resources made him near-invincible - was a Herculean challenge, defeating his anointed heir in a highly emotional atmosphere may be just as hard.
Some are even comparing Chavez’s death with the passing of Eva Peron, Argentina’s adored first lady whose 1952 death reverberates and still influences politics decades later.
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.
Aware of his single status, women screamed at him 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, who is now Venezuela’s caretaker president, with some of his aura and transformed his profile. One recent poll forecast 50 percent of votes for Maduro, versus 36 percent for Capriles.
“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.’”
Though Capriles has declared himself ready for another election fight and has been gearing up with angry attacks on Maduro as a “liar” and “incompetent,” some in the opposition fear he may be heading for a defeat that could end his career.
He has not yet formally confirmed his intention to run, preferring instead to offer condolences and calls for unity in a society bitterly polarized by Chavez’s 14-year rule.
“Do not be afraid, or anxious ... Among us all, we will guarantee the peace this dear fatherland deserves,” he said after Chavez’s death was announced on Tuesday.
Capriles’ electoral chances will hinge first 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.
In more than a dozen national votes since his 1998 presidential win, Chavez again and again used state resources - and stacked institutions with his supporters - in what the opposition said was a grossly unfair playing field.
The government counters such accusations by pointing at questionable opposition tactics in the past, including a failed coup against Chavez in 2002, and antagonistic private media.
To try to close the 11 percentage-point gap he lost by in October, Capriles will hope to focus Venezuelans’ attention away from the emotions over Chavez and onto day-to-day problems.
There is widespread disquiet over shocking murder rates, runaway prices, power cuts, potholes, housing shortages and corruption at all levels in government.
Advised by Brazilian strategists, Capriles made such issues the heart of his 2012 campaign and is likely to repeat the tactic, casting Maduro as the wrong man to fix problems.
Chavez trumped Capriles last year with his larger-than-life personality and constant reminders of his government’s wildly popular social “missions” that offer a range of services in the slums from free Cuban-staffed medical clinics to cheap groceries.
Given the rhetoric flying between Maduro and Capriles even before Chavez’s death, the campaign is likely to be an ugly one once a week of mourning for Chavez is over. The vote should be within 30 days of Chavez’s death, according to the constitution.
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, whose 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 visits a shrine on Margarita Island each year.
Though he has cultivated a man-on-the-street image, dressing and talking simply, Capriles does come from a wealthy family, and class prejudices are sure to figure in the campaign.
Just last week, 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,” Capriles 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 prevent chaos.
Capriles denies accusations by the government of wanting to scrap its social “missions” 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 Eric Beech