"It's clear that he's not the same Chavez as he was in 2006," Leon said. "His ratings in terms of performance and public approval have changed. If (Capriles) has a chance, it's because of that. There's a migration of votes. The question is: Is it enough?"
Chavez, for one, has called an opposition victory impossible, saying he'll win by a "knockout" and even put on boxing gloves at one point to emphasize his prediction. At one news conference, he laughed when asked about his loyalists defecting.
"For those who say there's a hidden vote, or that Chavistas will vote against Chavez, it's something like saying there are Martians on the sun," Chavez quipped.
Chavez has also been trying to make inroads among traditional middle-class opposition supporters. On a recent evening a small crowd of Chavistas demonstrated on a corner in an affluent Caracas neighborhood, holding banners announcing "The Middle Class with Chavez."
The impression has nonetheless grown that the president has become too enamored of his own global legacy while neglecting basic needs at home such as infrastructure and public safety. Chavez's election manifesto of proposals for his next six-year term trumpets abstract ideas such as "preserving life on the planet and helping to save mankind," a "new international geopolitics" and "a continuation of the 21st century socialism."
Capriles has responded with ridicule, recently telling supporters: "Saving humankind! ... Where's the plan for health? Where's the plan for education, for jobs?"
Capriles' campaign has also been running newspaper ads detailing "14 years of unfulfilled promises," including pledges by Chavez to construct a bridge across the country's biggest lake, build more hospitals and revolutionize a small farming sector to make the country self-sufficient in food. Another opposition ad features side-by-side photos of Venezuela's slums with homes that Chavez purportedly gave away in the Dominican Republic, with the slogan "It's time to put Venezuela first."
It's a message that resonates in places such as Petare, one of the biggest slums in Latin America, where homicides and the lack of basic public works make life a daily struggle. In 2008, an opposition candidate beat out a close Chavez aide to become district mayor. Since then it's been a key electoral battleground in Caracas.
During Capriles' weekend demonstration, many wore baseball caps emblazoned with the yellow, red and blue of the Venezuelan flag, just like the one their candidate has worn on the campaign trail. The crowd paraded past small groups of Chavez supporters in red shirts who came out of their homes shouting "Chavez won't leave!" and other slogans. Several years ago, more of them would have been challenging the march.
"I voted for him but I regret it," said Rosina Dambrosio, a homemaker in Petare. "He was going to modernize Venezuela and fight crime. And he also spoke so beautifully. I guess we trusted him too much. He still speaks nicely, but I don't believe him anymore."
She and her neighbor Zoraida Berniquez said it's not safe to walk the neighborhood at night.. Berniquez recently had to dive for cover during a walk when she heard the rat-tat-tat of gunfire.
Former Chavez supporters pile on the disappointments: The president's concentrated too much power and has governed undemocratically, he's divided the country along pro- and anti-Chavez lines.
"This is not the country that I wanted for my grandchildren," said Osiris Rojas, a 56-year-old secretary, while listening to Capriles at a rally. "Why so much hate if we're all Venezuelans? I feel cheated."
Associated Press writers Ian James and Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report.
Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao
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