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Caracas - A new poll in Venezuela put opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in front of Hugo Chavez for the first time before the October 7 election, contradicting most surveys that give the president a lead of more than 10 percent.
The Consultores 21 poll showed Capriles with 47.7 percent versus Chavez with 45.9 percent, overtaking the socialist leader since the group's survey in June gave Chavez a 3.4 percent lead.
The poll, which was prepared for private clients and has a 3.2 percent margin of error, was obtained by Reuters on Friday. Its findings were confirmed by Consultores 21.
Opinion polls are controversial in Venezuela, where both political camps accuse each other of commissioning biased surveys. Most well-known pollsters give the president, who wants to extend his 14-year rule, a solid lead. (Table: )
But Chavez, 58, has not had everything his own way.
Three cancer operations and sessions of chemo and radiotherapy during the last year mean he has not been able to match the tireless campaigning of the 40-year-old Capriles, who has been criss-crossing the South American country for months.
Since the formal campaign period began on July 1, the president has attended more than a dozen rallies, in addition to near-daily appearances on state TV. Normally, Chavez arrives at the rallies riding atop a truck, waving to cheering supporters before speaking from the stage.
But on Thursday night at an event in the eastern state of Sucre - perhaps mindful of opposition taunts that he seldom has physical contact with voters anymore - Chavez waded into the red-clad crowd, hugging children and embracing old women.
“The bourgeois say they are going to win, but they know they're losing and it is impossible to reverse a gap (in the polls) of not less than 15 points with less than a month and half to go,” he said.
This election has turned into the toughest of Chavez's political career, with his illness constraining his ability to hit the streets, and a newly-united opposition coalition backing a single, energetic candidate for the first time ever.
At stake is control of Venezuela's huge oil reserves - and the fate of the leftist political movement in Latin America headed by Chavez, whose criticism of the United States “empire” has made him one of the world's best-known politicians.
The local blogosphere was set alight this week after a “cadena” by Chavez - speeches that all local broadcasters are obliged to carry live - ended abruptly as striking workers from a state company could be heard in the background.
Chavez scoffed at suggestions by the opposition that the broadcast was halted because of the embarrassing disruption.
“To those who speculated that I was hospitalized, that the workers came up onto the stage, no,” he told reporters. “What happened was, the sound went and I waited for about two minutes. A cadena with no sound is pointless, so I ended it.” - Reuters