Hugo Chavez faces toughest poll of his career

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez faces the toughest election of his 14-year rule on Sunday in a vote pitting his charisma and oil-financed largesse against fresh-faced challenger Henrique Capriles’ promise of jobs, safer streets and an end to cronyism.

Chavez, 58, staged a remarkable comeback from cancer this year and wants a new six-year term to consolidate his self-styled socialist revolution in the OPEC nation.

Capriles, a boyish 40-year-old state governor, has run a marathon eight-month campaign of house-by-house visits that have galvanized the historically fractured opposition and set up its best shot at the presidency since Chavez’s election in 1998.

Victory would allow Chavez to continue a wave of nationalizations and consolidate control over the economy, though a recurrence of his cancer would weaken his leadership and possibly give the opposition another chance.

The former military officer, who survived a short-lived coup in 2002, has developed a near cult-like following by casting himself as a messianic reincarnation of 19th century liberation hero Simon Bolivar while pushing billions of dollars in oil revenue into social programs. Most best-known pollsters put Chavez in front. But two have Capriles just ahead, and his numbers have edged up in others.

The vote is also a cliffhanger for other left-wing governments in the region, from Cuba to Ecuador, who depend on Chavez’s discounted oil sales and generous financial assistance. Chavez’s stories of his poor but happy childhood in a small village have helped him create an emotional bond with poor Venezuelans who see him as one of the family.

Over the last year he launched programs to give pensions to the elderly, stipends to poor mothers, and tens of thousands of new homes were handed over on live TV to tearful supporters. “I work for the state and I’m offended that the loser (Capriles) says we’re made to attend and made to wear red!” said Paulo Garralaga, at Thursday's giant rally in Caracas.

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