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On Sunday, Venezuelans will vote for a new president. And for the first time in 14 years, Hugo Chavez is not on the ballot. The firebrand leftist died last month after a long fight with cancer. Pollsters say the sympathy vote and the state's huge resources will translate into a big victory for Chavez's hand-picked successor. Nonetheless, the opposition candidate is fighting all-out for a chance to lead the oil-rich nation out of socialism. NPR's Juan Forero has the story from Caracas.
JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: In the gritty streets of the capital, the crowds have been as big as ever for the young, energetic opposition leader, Henrique Capriles.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Capriles, Capriles, Capriles, Capriles, Capriles, Capriles.
FORERO: And they go wild when Capriles, a telegenic 40-year-old governor, goes on the attack against Maduro. Maduro became president last month when Chavez died after 14 stormy years in office. Capriles says Maduro's part of the enchufados, those who are connected.
HENRIQUE CAPRILES: (Foreign language spoken)
FORERO: They're a small group that takes from the people, who take public funds, Capriles says. It's the kind of bare-knuckle politics that the opposition wants to hear, a shift from the toned-down, issues-oriented strategy Capriles used against Chavez in presidential elections last year. Chavez won by more than 10 percentage points. But this is turning into perhaps even more of an uphill battle for Capriles.
Maduro is not a seasoned campaigner, but he benefits greatly from the people's memory of Chavez, a brilliant communicator who showered petro dollars on his followers, winning their ironclad support. Indeed, Capriles acknowledged the challenges when he accepted the opposition's nomination after Chavez's death.
CAPRILES: (Foreign language spoken)
FORERO: They said to me, Capriles, they're taking you the slaughterhouse and herding you in. At Capriles' campaign headquarters, workers zip around, answering phones and planning strategy. Sonali Armas, who volunteers here, says it's a race against time in this snap campaign.
SONALI ARMAS: We have to work very, very fast. We don't have so much time to organize.
FORERO: She says Maduro is not Chavez, but he has the Chavez machine on his side: constant positive TV coverage on several state channels and the public funds used to buy voters everything from washing machines to food.
ARMAS: I mean, I don't want to say that it has been easy. It has been really hard, but we still have people. You know, we still have the best, which is the people that believe in us.
FORERO: And in the weeks since Chavez's death, Capriles has been criss-crossing the country, telling Venezuelans he'd replace 21st century socialism with a Brazilian-style system of capitalism and muscular social programs.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)
FORERO: At his final rally in Caracas, music blares as tens of thousands of people gather to hear him speak from a stage above one of the main avenues. Radames Tulander, a law student, says he's confident his candidate will win.
RADAMES TULANDER: (Foreign language spoken)
FORERO: The economic situation is worse every day, he says. Everything is more expensive. Unemployment is high. The economy is in bad shape, bad shape. Capriles, to be sure, is trying to tap into that dissatisfaction.
CAPRILES: (Foreign language spoken)
FORERO: Twenty days ago, I'd tell you we weren't going to get there, Capriles tells the crowd. Then the country was overwhelmed with grief after the death of Chavez. But he says that now the people's eyes are opening and that victory is possible. But as Capriles' campaign comes to a close, he's still falling short in the polls. In some, he's trailing Maduro by double digits. Juan Forero, NPR News, Caracas.
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