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Chavez has opponent in Venezuela election

CARACAS -- Henrique Capriles Radonski has taken on President HugoChávez from congress, the governor’s mansion and from jail. Now, he’shoping to continue that fight in the national arena.

On Sunday, Venezuelans head to the ballot box to choose a singleopposition candidate to battle Chávez for the presidency in October.

Most polls give Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, a 15 to 20point lead over his nearest rival in the five-way race.

Wiry and intense, Capriles, 39, has made a name for himself as ahands-on leader with a workaholic streak. During recent flooding, hewas photographed in chest-high water helping constituents. At campaignrallies, he has the politician’s knack of making just enough eyecontact to satisfy supplicants as he plows through massive crowds.

It’s that energy that he says will allow him to beat the 57-year-oldChávez, who has stepped up his TV appearances as he recovers from anundisclosed form of cancer.

“That horse is tired and this horse is full of energy,” Capriles toldreporters recently. “We are going to travel this country from point topoint...You win the race on the ground not on television.”

Capriles’ political sprint has helped give him a comfortable lead overhis nearest rival, Pablo Pérez, the governor of Zulia state. Furtherbehind in the race are legislator María Corina Machado, Venezuela’sformer permanent representative to the United Nations Diego Arria andPablo Medina, a one-time Chávez ally turned foe.

After years of squabbling that played into Chávez’s hand, thecoalition of opposition parties is hoping a unified front will givethem the momentum necessary to capture the presidency. All thecontenders in Sunday’s race have pledged to back the winner.

But the cooperation hasn’t started yet. On the campaign trail,Capriles has pledged to be tough on crime, loosen state controls andcreate a business-friendly environment. But he has also promised toimprove social programs, or the “missions” that have been one of thebackbones of Chávez’s popularity.

“The sense that the quality of these programs has deteriorated isunanimous,” said Capriles, who advocates auditing the initiatives —which include free food, housing and subsidies to the elderly, amongothers — to see if they’re effective.

In Miranda, 60 percent of the free medical clinics that Chávez beganrolling out in 2003 have been shuttered, he said. “What do I offer?Let’s get these programs working again. And why stop there? Let’s takethem even further.”

In polarized Venezuela, giving Chávez any credit is anathema to theopposition. Capriles’ willingness to do so has exposed him to attacksby his rivals. But his message has resonated among those weary of thepolitical divide.

In this primary race, the anti-Chávez hard-liners have been pollingnear the bottom, said John Magdaleno, the director of Politi, apolitical consulting firm.

“If people still think that confronting Chávez head on works, here’sthe evidence that it’s a failed strategy,” he said. And even thoughsocial issues, such as healthcare, education and housing, are Chávezmainstays, the opposition is wise to address them.

“If your competitor is strong in some areas and those areas are vitalfor the majority, you have to try to beat that monopoly,” he said.“You have to steal his flags.”

Despite his age, Capriles is already an old political hand. At 25 hewon a seat in congress and became the youngest person to hold thepresidency of the chamber of deputies. He went on to win two terms asmayor of the Baruta municipality — part of greater Caracas.

It was as mayor that he first caught national attention — but for thewrong reasons. In the wake of a 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chávez,an aggressive hoard descended on the Cuban embassy to try to drum outgovernment officials suspected of taking refuge there. Capriles wasamong the crowd. Less than two days later, Chávez was restored topower and the government accused Capriles of abetting the aggressorsand not calling on the Baruta police to restrain the mob.

Rather than flee the country, as some politicians did, Capriles facedthe accusations from jail. The charges were eventually dropped, buthis popularity soared, Magdaleno said.

“Jail was a big boost for him,” he said. “The fact that he stayed hereto face the charges was noteworthy and people appreciated him forit.”

Capriles ran for governor of Miranda, which includes part of GreaterCaracas, in 2008 and won with 53 percent of the vote. The fact that hebeat Chávez’s hand-picked candidate and longtime ally Diosdado Cabellomade the victory more impressive.

Chávez has discounted the opposition’s chances. On the mend from thecancer treatment that left him bald and bloated, Chávez used a recentmeeting of regional leaders to skewer the opposition.

“I’m sure they’re very sad that my sickness didn’t prosper like theyhoped it would,” he said. He claimed his polls showed he had a30-point lead on any rival. “We only have eight months to go butanyone who knows about these things says it’s almost impossible tochange that tendency.”

Even an ailing Chávez is a formidable contender. With more than adecade in power, he still has popularity ratings of about 50 percentand a devout legion of followers. The government’s television,newspaper and radio empire gives him almost daily access to millionsof households. (His speech to the national assembly, which ran morethan 9 hours, was recently broadcast.)

In addition, his government also has been ramping up public spendingas new price controls push down the costs on household goods. Not aweek goes by without government workers handing out subsidizedmicrowaves, or inaugurating new projects.

That has won Chávez a loyal following that’s deeply suspicious ofpeople like Capriles.

“Those opposition people will say anything to get elected,” saidOctavio Machado, 67, a sidewalk salesman in one of the poorer areas ofMiranda state. “But there’s not a single one of them who came from thestreet or the mountain. They’re all rich kids. Chávez is the only onewho has ever done anything for the poor.”

Capriles has accused Chávez’s PSUV party of using the state-run oilcompany as its personal piggybank.

“This is going to be an unfair competition, but we’ve never had faircompetitions and we’ve always won,” Capriles said. “We have one thingthat the government doesn’t. We are on the side of the future where asthis government is on the side of the present and the past.”

Capriles prides himself on never having lost an election. On Sunday,the voters will decide if he keeps his winning streak.

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