Mr. Sagarzazu says that Chávez support has moved from urban to rural areas over the years. That’s left the president with a base in the plains while urban areas have moved largely to the opposition, which this year is supporting Mr. Capriles, governor of a state that includes part of the capital, Caracas.
Here in this region, too, people have shifted their support away from the incumbent.
"He never does what he says," says Reina, a mother of 11 and full-time homemaker, who was shy about talking to the press. She says she has supported Chávez for years, but is still undecided as to whether she will give him her vote again in a race that’s too close to call, with pollsters and analysts divided on which candidate is the most likely winner.
Venezuela is experiencing 18 percent inflation and there is a sense that neighbors, such as Brazil, have emerged more successfully from poverty. Such concerns are countering Chávez's emotional connection with the people and his ability to attract support with populist programs such as free homes. In the oil region, environmental issues have also affected the president's standing. One case is Monagas state, where the president received 71 percent support in the 2006 election.
A pipeline burst in the state Feb. 4, spilling thousands of barrels of crude into the Guarapiche river. Local opposition press reported that for the first hours of the disaster, the state oil company failed to halt the flow, in part because some employees were away in the capital for a rally commemorating the 20th anniversary of Chávez leading a failed military coup.
The spill forced managers to halt water withdrawals from the river, leaving about 200,000 residents of the city of Maturin with limited running water for six weeks.