Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez takes his cap off during a welcoming ceremony for Bolivian President Evo Morales at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Sept. 17, 2011. (AP Photo)
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Outmatched time and again at the polls by President Hugo Chavez, Venezuelan's opposition leaders are trying a new strategy to unseat the populist leader this year, holding the nation's first presidential primary to choose the strongest challenger.
The front-runner in Sunday's election is Henrique Capriles, a 39-year-old state governor who has won a large following as a youthful alternative to the 57-year-old Chavez. Capriles, an avid jogger who plays pickup basketball games with supporters, has crowd appeal that makes him a formidable adversary.
Sometimes wearing a baseball hat emblazoned with the yellow, blue and red stripes of Venezuela's flag, Capriles has pledged both to help the poor and be a friend to business. He describes himself as a center-left progressive, saying he admires the approach of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Other contenders range from Pablo Perez, a popular state governor, to Maria Corina Machado, a congresswoman who is the most forceful in her criticisms of Chavez and his effort to bring socialism to Venezuela. Whoever wins the primary is likely to give Chavez the toughest electoral fight of his more than 13 years in office.
In the past, Chavez has capitalized on his opponents' mistakes. He saw his popularity grow after a failed 2002 coup, swept a 2005 congressional vote boycotted by the opposition and won re-election in 2006 with 63 percent of the vote.
Since then, though, his popularity has slipped as ills such as crime, inflation, and problem-riddled public services have taken a toll.
The once-fractured opposition has been emboldened by a strong showing in 2010 congressional elections, and has united to hold the primary vote at a time when polls show Chavez's adversaries have gained ground.
"The opposition has never been in better shape to defeat Chavez," said Angel Alvarez, director of the Institute of Political Studies at the Central University of Venezuela.
Polls show more than half of Venezuelans still approve of Chavez. But the new batch of opposition challengers are more popular than those who faced Chavez in 1998, 2000 and 2006, Alvarez said.
The top three contenders are all under 45 and represent a new generation of anti-Chavez leaders. After three terms as president, Chavez is less able to paint his opponents as part of the corrupt political establishment he once defeated.
Capriles comes from an upper middle-class family but has managed to make inroads among the poor, who have traditionally been Chavez's support base, by promoting programs including food and housing assistance as governor of Miranda state, which includes part of Caracas.
Capriles also largely avoids direct confrontation with Chavez, seldom mentioning the president by name even when he criticizes him.
In a typical jab at Chavez's preferential oil deals with his allies, Capriles told reporters recently: "We aren't going to go around using oil to try to win political loyalties ... because I don't want to be a world leader. I want to be the leader of Venezuela."
Capriles' leading rival according to the polls is Perez, the 42-year-old governor of western Zulia state and another fresh face in the opposition. Perez's potential advantages include support in the country's second largest state and the campaign experience of the established Social Christian and Democratic Action parties, which have backed him instead of politicians from within their own ranks.
Perez has taken the place of his political mentor Manuel Rosales, who was handily defeated by Chavez in the last vote in 2006. Rosales then fled to Peru in 2009 after officials filed corruption accusations that he said were trumped up for political reasons.
Perez too has avoided direct sparring with Chavez. The governor has rallied large crowds during the campaign, denouncing the government for squandering oil wealth while failing to fight joblessness, fix undersupplied hospitals or repair potholed roads.
Recent polls have shown Capriles with about 40 percent support among opposition voters, about 10 percentage points ahead of Perez. Capriles could also see a boost from his endorsement by rival Leopoldo Lopez, who bowed out of the race last month.
If voters favor a staunch anti-Chavez approach, that could help Congresswoman Machado, who has repeatedly challenged Chavez directly and has promoted her candidacy with the slogan "Vote hard." Machado has opposed Chavez's brand of socialism, saying she thinks Venezuela needs "popular capitalism."
Machado grabbed attention last month during Chavez's annual speech to the National Assembly, which ran for nine and a half hours, when she stood and asked: "How can you say you respect the private sector in Venezuela when you've dedicated yourself to expropriating, which is robbing?"
Chavez dismissed her comment, suggesting that Machado should first win the primary before trying to debate with him. "An eagle doesn't hunt a fly, congresswoman," Chavez said. That exchange has helped Machado stand out among the candidates, though prior polls showed her trailing.
Also running are two independents: Diego Arria, a 73-year-old former ambassador the United Nations, and Pablo Medina, a 64-year-old former leftist lawmaker.
All registered voters will be able to vote in Sunday's opposition primary regardless of party affiliation.
Chavez has said it's all the same to him who wins, calling the entire field of challengers pawns of the rich and allies of the U.S. government.
"The candidate, whoever it is, will be the candidate of capitalism, the candidate of imperialism," Chavez said in a Jan. 31 speech before the Supreme Court. "And this humble soldier will be the candidate of socialism."
Chavez says he has recovered after undergoing cancer surgery and chemotherapy last year, and he has appeared vigorous while speaking for his usual long stints on television.
Chavez has long described himself as a revolutionary on a crusade to change Venezuela. Now that he is the older incumbent, though, he warns that a change in leadership would only bring chaos.
"We're the only ones who can guarantee national stability — stability, national peace," Chavez said. "That's good for the world."
Associated Press writer Ian James in Caracas contributed to this report.
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