* 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 (Reuters) - 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 Chavez.
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.
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 Margarita island.
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 prevent chaos.
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)