At passionate rallies that take on the feel of rock concerts, Capriles has shouted that "Maduro is not Chavez" while calling attention to Venezuela's high crime rate, its overvalued currency, its overreliance on food imports and its 22 percent inflation rate, the highest in Latin America. He's also tried to assure Chavez supporters that he will not touch their many social programs.
Yet the 40-year-old candidate is short of funding, time and, maybe, votes. A recent survey by the independent polling firm Datanalisis showed Capriles trailed Maduro 49 percent to 35 percent in a sampling of 800 voters from March 11-13. The poll had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
That may explain why the opposition candidate has shed last fall's turn-the-cheek approach for a more confrontational style. He's accused Maduro of shamelessly capitalizing on Chavez's legacy and ridiculed his opponent, a tall and physically imposing former union leader, as an "oaf" incapable of fixing the country.
Mariana Bacalao, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela, said the abbreviated campaign has pushed both candidates to turn up the rhetoric for maximum effect with each appearance.
"Capriles has to make a quick impression," Bacalao said
Capriles also has to strike the delicate balance of attacking Chavez's record — but not Chavez.
The Datanalisis poll found that 79 percent of Venezuelans had a positive image of Chavez, while only 55 percent thought positively of Maduro. At the same time, 56 percent had a positive image of the country's situation, but only 47 percent felt the same about the economy.
Campaign adviser Oswaldo Ramirez acknowledged that Capriles must "confront those responsible for public policy and those responsible for 14 years of bad management without touching Hugo Chavez with so much as a feather."
"Hugo Chavez is now the opposition's sword of Damocles. You cannot attack him," Ramirez said.
He conceded that Capriles will have difficulty reaching the millions of Venezuelans who now believe it's the government's responsibility to provide their basic needs — and who are fed a steady diet of Maduro's broadsides on state-controlled media.
Izarra said Capriles' strategy will backfire.
"Capriles is disrespecting the people. They are accusing him of being disrespectful, and he made a big mistake with that," Izarra said. "People are very sensitive to what you say about Chavez now. People are looking for sympathy."
Government officials, meanwhile, preach unity — and optimism — at least for their side of this country's gaping political divide, which appears to have grown wider with the populist leader's death, said Information Minister Ernesto Villegas.
"It turns out the Chavez movement without Chavez is even more Chavista," Villegas said.
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Jack Chang contributed to this report., Christopher Toothaker on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ctoothaker
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