Challenger highlights vigor

On a campaign visit here last month, presidential candidate Henrique Capriles ran through the streets of beach ...

On a campaign visit here last month, presidential candidate Henrique Capriles ran through the streets of beach town Boca del Rio at breakneck speed with hundreds of supporters in tow. At another stop, he played a fast-paced, 10-minute game of full-court basketball with young supporters in Altagracia.

His strenuous agenda was designed to contrast his youthful athleticism with the cancer-stricken and now seldom-seen incumbent, President Hugo Chavez. But can the 40-year-old run fast enough and score enough points with voters to unseat the entrenched and charismatic Chavez?

In an interview with The Times, Capriles predicted that he would win easily.

"It could be a margin of 10 percentage points, of several million votes," the sweat-soaked candidate said aboard his campaign bus. "Venezuelans are tired of 14 years of promises and no results. The only things growing are inflation, murder and crime. The good indicators _ production, education and jobs _ are all falling."

Most pollsters would scoff at Capriles' prediction as wishful thinking. With just five weeks left before Venezuelans cast their ballots Oct. 7, most have Chavez, 58, leading by margins ranging from slim to insurmountable.

But most show Capriles closing the gap. Or, as he would put it, extending his margin.

"All my career, official polls have had me losing, first for National Assembly, then for mayor, then governor and now for president. All those scenarios collapsed," Capriles said. His last time out, Capriles beat Chavez's anointed candidate and old army comrade, Diosdado Cabello, to win the governorship of Miranda state.

Chavez, who insists that he will beat Capriles overwhelmingly, may be vulnerable.

Venezuela's homicide rate has tripled since he took office in 1999 and is now South America's highest. Rampant crime is the leading campaign issue. Despite the infusion of billions of oil dollars, Venezuela's limping economy suffers from double-digit inflation, low growth and job losses.

Even Chavez supporters have had enough of his foreign giveaways, which Capriles says total $7 billion a year, with Cuba the main beneficiary.

Then there is Chavez's cancer. He has undergone three surgeries in Cuba, and his prognosis is uncertain.

These are serious question marks for supporters whose fervor for their charismatic leader's "Bolivarian revolution" could dissipate if he dies or resigns.

Last weekend, the Capriles campaign may have received an unforeseen boost from the disaster of the Amuay refinery explosion that killed 39 people and raised doubt about whether Chavez is investing adequately in Venezuelan infrastructure. A riot at the Yare prison last month in which 25 died also did little to boost confidence in the current administration.

But Chavez's die-hard political base _ millions of mostly poor voters who have landed government jobs or benefited from his social welfare programs, called Missions _ will stick with the commandante no matter what. To get out the vote, Chavez frequently warns them that they will lose those handouts if he is defeated. (Capriles has vowed to keep the Missions.)

One political scientist and analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Chavez's lavish spending programs in recent months on free housing and household appliances to curry favor with poor voters could make him unbeatable.

"Chavez's favorability ratings have improved over the last several months, and with all the money he is spending on the campaign, he should be winning in a landslide," the analyst said.

Pollster Oscar Schemel, whose mid-August poll gave Chavez a double-digit percentage point edge among likely voters, said poor Venezuelans' "irrational and emotional devotion" to the president is what makes him such a formidable candidate.

"Poor people feel that Chavez has set a place at the table for them, that his vision of the future includes them," Schemel said.

But Capriles is hammering away at Chavez's weaknesses, and he is gaining ground.

The challenger's stump speech blaming Chavez for rising crime and the poor economy was met with rousing cheers at El Tirano fishing village, where there was a rash of boat motor thefts last year. Capriles also slammed Chavez for "importing $70 million in sardines from Ecuador while many of you were living in poverty."

By Chris Kraul


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