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During his 14 years in power, Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, has easily defeated his adversaries one election after another. But tomorrow, Mr. Chavez faces his most serious test in a presidential election. This time against a 40-year-old former governor who has been electrifying the crowds. NPR's Juan Forero reports from Caracas.
JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: In speech after speech, President Hugo Chavez is like the Chavez of old - bombastic, loud, defiant, with grand dreams about projecting Venezuelan influence worldwide.
PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: He's the president who once called George Bush the devil in a United Nations speech. He's also using his alliances with Iran, Cuba and Russia to counter U.S. power. And he's sitting on the world's biggest oil reserves. Now, Chavez is campaigning yet again, telling Venezuelans he'll deliver a bright future.
CHAVEZ: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: When I say Chavez wins, I am not the one who wins, Chavez says. Chavez is the people. You are Chavez. You, young man. You, young woman. The message is clear: a vote for Chavez is a vote for the people.
CHAVEZ: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: But the Chavez of today is far different from the dashing former army colonel in the red beret who swept into power in 1998. Venezuelans then were ready to overturn the old economic order, and Chavez was young, energetic and his plans for a socialist fatherland held out hope. Now, Chavez is slowed by a cancerous tumor he says was removed earlier this year. He looks bloated and older and walks gingerly. And increasingly, polls show, he also faces a growing opposition.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
FORERO: Henrique Capriles is a long-distance runner, who on a recent waded into big crowds in Caracas. He says he'll bring down rampant crime and reverse the government expropriations of businesses he says have damaged the economy.
HENRIQUE CAPRILES: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: Judge for yourself, Capriles said. Who's going to bring change and who's become sick with power? Political analyst Carlos Romero says the opposition has finally found a formula: a charismatic candidate who'll keep in place popular social programs while reversing state interventions. Two polls show Capriles and Chavez in a rough tie; two show Chavez well ahead. The key could be the many undecided voters. But in Venezuela, the opposition fears that those who express support for Chavez could be fired from state jobs or end up on government blacklists, as has happened in the past. Juan Mijares is the number two in the Capriles campaign.
JUAN MIJARES: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: The undecided are deciding, Mijares says, and the trends are that those people will break for Capriles. On the surface, it's hard to see how that could happen in a big, bustling barrio like Petare. Its people, long forgotten by successive governments, naturally gravitated to Chavez.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FORERO: Campaign vans now blast Chavez' speeches and music, and big crowds form. Ismar Mota, a longtime resident who's campaigning for Chavez, says the president has redistributed oil wealth and improved people's lives.
ISMAR MOTA: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: Mota says 14 years, though, is not enough and that Chavez needs more time to consolidate socialism. But undoubtedly, some who once supported Chavez are now looking to Capriles.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)
FORERO: Standing at the door of her house, Maria Uribe says she worries about her 9-year-old son in the Venezuela of today. The public schools are shoddy, she says, and the economy doesn't create many jobs.
MARIA URIBE: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: The truth is that these elections are very important, she says. The country needs change. Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas.
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