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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Venezuela, the opposition to President Hugo Chavez has tried everything to end his long rule – huge protests, a coup, an oil strike. And nothing has worked. Now, leaders of the opposition have coalesced into a united and focused movement. They're preparing to choose one candidate to run against the president, posing the strongest electoral challenge Chavez has faced. NPR's Juan Forero caught up with the leading opposition candidate as he campaigned.

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JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Voters in the town of Acarigua in central Venezuela have rarely seen an opposition candidate quite like Henrique Capriles.

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FORERO: He's trim and young, just 39, and comes from a new political party, First Justice - not the old, corrupt system of the past that Hugo Chavez smashed in his rise to power in 1999. And as the governor of an important state, Miranda, Capriles has won admirers, like Carmen Lucena. She's one of hundreds waiting to see him as he briskly walks through the streets of this rural town, shaking hands and kissing cheeks.

CARMEN LUCENA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Capriles represents a change that's needed in this country, says Lucena, a 58-year-old hair stylist. She says she wants a candidate who can end the political polarization and cope with problems like rampant crime and unemployment. If polls hold, Capriles will, on Sunday, emerge victorious from a field of five opposition candidates vying in a first-ever opposition primary involving several political movements.

Leftist newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff has closely followed the campaigns.

TEODORO PETKOFF: (Spanish language spoken)

FORERO: The government has never been worse off, Petkoff says, and the opposition has never been better. He says that's because problems such as high inflation and the scarcity of some food items are souring people on the government. Petkoff says the opposition, in contrast, is stronger ahead of the October presidential election.

In the past, candidates from various movements canceled each other out in elections. This time, under the so-called United Democratic Platform, various anti-Chavez parties agreed on a primary. One of the candidates is Maria Corina Machado.

CORINA MACHADO: It's the first time in Venezuela that candidates from different parties decide to go through a process of selecting a single candidate in which every single citizen is allowed and invited to participate.

FORERO: For months now, it's the Capriles campaign that has caught the public's imagination. Until now, no opposition candidate has ever come as close to Chavez in the polls as Capriles. The latest polls show Chavez with a slight lead, but it's nothing like what it was in years past, when he'd top his foes by 30 to 40 percentage points.

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FORERO: In Acarigua, Capriles is mobbed on the streets. And even as he makes it into his van, prospective voters pledge their support though an open window.

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FORERO: For many, Capriles' message of reconciliation and his record of supporting social programs have struck a chord - giving him gain an edge over other opposition candidates. However, Chavez still claims to have the upper hand in this year's election. The president says he's recovered from the surgery carried out in Cuba last June that removed a baseball-sized tumor from his abdomen. And he also wields a powerful, oil-funded political machine.

At a government event last week, he spoke for five hours, and it was plainly evident he still had a gift for connecting in an almost mystical way with his followers.

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FORERO: The crowd chanted the government's unofficial motto - ooh, ah, Chavez no se va, which loosely translates into Chavez is never leaving. Chavez, in fact, told them that one day he would, but certainly not now. And as in all his rallies, he heaped scorn on his opponents, promising to crush them in the presidential election.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

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