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Venezuela challenger: 'Chávez is not my opponent'

As Venezuela prepares to vote for president April 14 Chávez's socialist party remains a formidable force against opposition candidate Capriles.

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Venezuela's opposition leader and presidential candidate Henrique Capriles speaks during a news conference in Caracas Monday.

Tomas Bravo/Reuters

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In his bid to win Venezuela’s presidency, Henrique Capriles Radonski has reminded supporters and opponents of the obvious: Hugo Chávez is not his opponent.

Interim President Nicolás Maduro “is not Chávez and you all know it,” he said in a press conference Sunday announcing his candidacy. “President Chávez is no longer here.”

What Mr. Capriles knows well, however, is that while Chávez may not be on the ticket, the socialist party’s political machine that helped win Chávez reelections four times, remains formidable.  From the ubiquitous state-run television stations that have broadcasted  all of Mr. Maduro’s recent public appearances, to the massive get-out-the-vote campaign, the party is well prepared to spring into action in a short campaign.

“He knows it’s going to be difficult,” says an official from one of the opposition parties that teamed to nominate Capriles. “You’re not running against just Maduro.”

Capriles is taking a huge risk by running. He will have to step down as governor of Miranda state to stand as candidate for a job he ran for just months ago when Chávez soundly defeated him with 55 percent of the vote.

Capriles has acknowledged his role as an underdog, saying Monday, “it’s a totally unequal fight, a fight against the state.”

Capriles has already complained that the government is flouting the Constitution by running Maduro as its candidate. As vice president, Maduro should have had to step down before running for president, per the law, Capriles says.

But instead the Venezuelan Supreme Court ruled Friday that Maduro could run for president, and he was named interim president that night.

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'System already in place'

The United Socialist Party of Venezuela’s campaign muscle was on full display Monday as thousands of Chavistas arrived at the military academy where Chávez’s corpse is being displayed in an open casket. They had been bused into Caracas from the country’s interior.

“We came in on the bus to show our support for President Chávez, our love for him,” says Ana Araujo, repeating a refrain heard often since Chávez’s body arrived at the academy Wednesday.

Ms. Araujo traveled 12 hours from the far-flung Zulia state on a bus provided by the government along with thousands of others in a reminder of the party’s ability to mobilize supporters.

“There’s an obvious advantage for Maduro because the system is already in place. It was effective last year,” says Carlos Romero, a political analyst at Venezuela’s Central University, referencing the 2012 presidential election in which Chávez defeated Capriles by 11 percentage points. “It will be difficult in a short campaign to overcome that.”

The election has been set for April 14, and official campaigning can take place for only 10 days in early April, giving Capriles little time to make inroads with voters that he failed to win over in October.

While he has support among middle- and uppe- class Venezuelans, Capriles has been seen as moving more toward the center in an attempt to capture more support in the poor neighborhoods that have made up Chávez’s base.

“We plan to be aggressive, much more aggressive,” says Oswaldo Ramirez, who heads a Caracas political consultancy working on the Capriles campaign. “Many of the structural problems Venezuela faces have only become more entrenched since the campaign of 2012.”

Mr. Ramirez says Capriles plans to highlight crime – a concern for most Venezuelans, especially in the capital – unemployment, and economic concerns.

Ramirez says that this time around Capriles can run on the future of the country rather than Chávez’s record.

“One of the main differences between last year and now is the physical absence of Hugo Chávez,” Ramirez says. “We can talk about the last 14 years [Chávez’s tenure] and … say that it’s time to make things better.”

'Man of the street'

Polls taken before Chávez died gave Maduro the advantage over Capriles with a sizable undecided segment. The sympathy vote for Chávez, who had the political foresight to name a successor in Maduro, will likely translate into additional votes.

Maduro, a burly former bus driver who has tried to utilize some of Chávez’s oratory devices in recent days, has made it clear that he has neither the charisma nor the leadership skills of his mentor.

“I’m a man of the street. … I’m not Chávez,” he said Sunday. “I’m interim president, commander of the armed forces and presidential candidate because this is what Chávez decided and I’m following his orders.”   

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