The crowds are bigger, his speeches slicker, and Venezuela’s young opposition leader Henrique Capriles is on a roll in a final, frenzied push to end President Hugo Chavez’s socialist rule. With just 12 days left before the OPEC nation’s presidential election, the 40-year-old state governor is whipping up crowds like never before, creeping up in the polls and becoming increasingly aggressive in his attacks on Chavez’s policies. “We’ve never had a candidate like him,” gushed shopkeeper Andrea Gomez, 42, screaming at Capriles like a teenage girl at a pop concert as he went by, blowing kisses during an open-top cavalcade along the Caribbean coast north of Caracas. “It’s like Chavez in 1998, when he won the presidency. But Henrique has surpassed that. He is closer to the people.”
Capriles has clearly made big inroads among the working class where Chavez has his power-base, but he still faces suspicions – gleefully stoked by the government – that he will end Chavez’s popular welfare programs and is too much of a rich kid. Chavez, 58, is still a formidable campaigner and even his opponents admit he has a genuine emotional connection with many Venezuelans, especially the poor.
Yet while a majority of big pollsters still put Chavez in front, two – Consultores 21 and Varianzas – have Capriles just ahead, and his numbers have inched up in others. Opposition activists insist the poll numbers are distorted by a “fear factor” – for instance, government employees wary of reprisals if they show support for Capriles – and therefore underestimate their man’s real popularity. Either way, Capriles seems certain to have the best tilt at Chavez that anyone has managed during his 14-year rule.