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Chavez rival struggles to close gap

Hugo Chavez and Henrique Capriles race to woo voters for the Venezuela polls

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez. Picture: AFP
Venezuela,Hugo Chavez,Venezuela presidential elections,Henrique Capriles
World

CARACAS -On a heady night in mid-February, Henrique Capriles roared himself hoarse with optimism at his victory rally in Caracas after trouncing rivals to win the Venezuelan opposition's presidential ticket.

Three months later, despite an exhausting "house-by-house" tour intended to galvanize the nation behind him, Capriles remains firmly stuck behind President Hugo Chavez in most polls.

In some, he has actually slipped a point or two.

Furthermore, the opposition's meticulously-planned campaign has failed so far to divert Venezuelans' attention from the all-consuming subject of Chavez's battle against cancer in an increasingly surreal run-up to the October 7 election.

Capriles' biggest policy announcement to date - vowing to create 3 million jobs in six years - made few inroads into newspaper headlines and street conversations obsessively picking over the rumours about Chavez's treatment in Cuba.

"Capriles could be out anywhere today, but the rest of the country does not know about it," said local pollster Oscar Schemel. His figures show Capriles static since winning the opposition primary, at 34 percent support versus 53 percent for Chavez.

"ONLY TALKING OF CHAVEZ"

Even the militantly pro-opposition newspaper, Tal Cual, suggested the Capriles campaign was looking dull.

One of its columnists asked how the image of Capriles pledging to create jobs could compete with that of Chavez calling on God to give him life to serve the Venezuelan people, while pouring oil revenues into pre-election social programs.

"Capriles' strategy is not working, his candidacy is not growing, and Chavez's illness has hyper-personalized electoral debate. People are only talking about Chavez," added Schemel.

Being the centre of attention is, of course, nothing new for a man who, since winning the 1998 presidential election, has dominated Venezuela with his radical socialism, charismatic style and aggressive stance against U.S. "imperialism."

Capriles and his aides scoff at Schemel and others among Venezuela's numerous pollsters, pointing out their failure to predict either the landslide nature of his primary win, with 62 percent, or the unexpectedly large turnout of 3 million voters.

The uber-confident Capriles, 39, also likes to remind Venezuelans that he has never lost a vote and defied popular wisdom to convincingly win the Miranda state governorship in 2008 against powerful Chavez loyalist Diosdado Cabello.

Asked during a visit to Colombia this week about his failure to climb in the polls, Capriles challenged his audience to remember that day and pledged that he would soon be back visiting as president of Venezuela.
His team is questioning the accuracy of polls.

"People are scared of revealing their real political intention, for fear of retaliation," Maria Corina Machado, one of Capriles' campaign leaders, told Reuters.

"Especially as the state every day tells public servants and beneficiaries of social programs that if they are not with the government, they are enemies and will lose everything."

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