Caracas - Venezuela's opposition shrugged off opinion polls showing President Hugo Chavez in the lead before October's election and said on Wednesday its candidate Henrique Capriles would win thanks to a tireless “house-by-house” campaign.
The 39-year-old state governor has been criss-crossing Venezuela for months, often stopping several times a day to go into homes, walk the streets and give speeches in a strategy designed to build grassroots support.
Limited by his year-long fight against cancer, Chavez, 57, is only occasionally appearing in public. But in recent weeks he has returned to addressing Venezuelans frequently on TV, sometimes via so-called “chain” broadcasts that local channels are obliged to carry.
Most of the latest surveys by Venezuela's main pollsters give Chavez a lead of more than 15 percentage points ahead of the Oct. 7 presidential ballot, and the socialist stalwart is predicting a landslide win with 60 percent of the vote.
But Capriles' campaign manager, Armando Briquet, told Reuters the evidence on the street and in private surveys available to the opposition showed a very different picture.
“Right now, things are level and there are signs lately that the balance is tipping in our favor,” he said.
“We are going to win. We have no doubt.”
Capriles' camp was buoyed by a turnout of hundreds of thousands when he formally registered his candidacy in Caracas earlier this month. But Chavez supporters also turned up en masse when the president formalized his candidacy the following day. The events boosted both campaigns.
The stakes are high not only for Venezuela, a nation of 29 million people with the largest oil reserves in the world, but for the wider region. Leftist allies such as Cuba and Nicaragua depend on Chavez's oil-financed largesse towards them.
Though staying generally quiet, Washington is watching closely to see whether its No. 1 irritant in the region wins re-election or exits the political stage after more than a decade of baiting and bashing U.S. officials.
Briquet said Capriles' street campaign - which he has dubbed “house-by-house” and involves walking into countless front rooms day after day for informal chats - was successfully showing the different models on offer to Venezuela.
“People are seeing a president who is abusing power via TV 'chains' because he has no way of going onto the street. He has forgotten the people,” he said. “We have a candidate who is in the street ... We're replacing the monologue with a dialogue.”
Capriles' supporters were unable to watch a private TV broadcast of a major rally in the Western state of Zulia last week because Chavez blocked the airwaves with a long-winded discussion of Venezuela's economy.
Capriles is projecting an image of youth and energy, and promising to follow Brazil's much-praised model of balancing free enterprise with social welfare programs.
Chavez, though, remains popular due to his personal charisma and welfare “missions” providing free healthcare and education, plus subsidized food, in city slums and poor rural areas.
The president says he is recovering from radiotherapy treatment after a February operation in Cuba to remove a tumor from his pelvis, though rumors persist that he has a fatal condition. The opposition is avoiding commenting on his health, which remains the wild card factor in the vote.
Capriles has opted for a down-to-earth manifesto emphasizing daily issues from childcare to jobs, while Chavez's grandiose-sounding government plan ranges from continuing the “construction of socialism” to “saving the human race.”
“He wants to be the savior of the world but doesn't say how he's going to save Venezuelans' lives,” said Briquet, referring to crime that tops surveys as Venezuelans' biggest concern.
Chavez was set to launch a new campaign to beat crime later on Wednesday, reportedly including an eye-catching proposal to give money to victims. The president has already lavished billions on giveaways to single mothers, pensioners and others in the run-up to the vote.
Though the gap remains formidable, Capriles has been creeping up one or two points in recent weeks in polls. JPMorgan said on Tuesday that Chavez's lead may have topped out.
“Capriles is rising because he is traveling across the country. While Capriles was in 12 states (in the last few days), mobbed by people, Chavez has made three TV speeches, hours of 'chains', forcing people to see him,” Briquet said.
“If they're so confident, why doesn't he (Chavez) accept a debate? Chavez has always said 'an eagle doesn't hunt a fly', so why does he spend all day hunting Capriles?” he added, referring to the president's recent torrent of insults against his rival. - Reuters