CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Presidential candidate Henrique Capriles is mobbed at rallies by ecstatic women who press close to touch him and leave scratches on his arms and neck. Some shout "Marry me!" to the single 40-year-old who's trying to unseat President Hugo Chavez in next month's hotly contested vote.
The 58-year-old Chavez campaigns as the living legend who for more than 13 years has remade this oil-rich country in his socialistic vision. But he's also adjusting his approach as he confronts for the first time a younger, charismatic rival.
The two are taking at times contrasting approaches ahead of Venezuela's Oct. 7 election but they're aiming for the same pool of swing voters made up of Venezuelans under 30 and women of all social classes.
While recent polls show everything from a tie to a double-digit lead for Chavez, they've also revealed between 10 and 20 percent of voters who are either undecided or won't say whom they support.
Most of those — about 1.5 million of them — are working-class voters who will play a crucial role in the election, said Angel Alvarez, a professor of political science at Venezuela's Central University.
To try to persuade them, Chavez and his campaign have been using "the threat that Henrique Capriles has a package of secret economic measures that are going to seriously affect them," Alvarez said.
"As for Capriles' side, I'd say the strategy is to show that Chavez's government has performed badly in a range of areas from crime to jobs," Alvarez said. "Who will win? The one that manages to convince those voters... that his adversary is the more dangerous one."
Capriles is also betting on his youthful appeal. He's campaigned vigorously in more than 200 towns nationwide, pumping hands and sweating among the crowds. The opposition-aligned organization Voto Joven, or Youth Vote, estimates that more than a third of registered voters are between the ages of 18 and 25, making them a key target for both camps.
As the response at campaign events show, Capriles' appeal to women has become another asset, turning the lean, athletic candidate into a kind of opposition sex symbol.
On the stump, Capriles has argued that he would inject a fresh voice into politics and replace a bloated administration that's run out of ideas. He also tries to reassure Venezuelans that he won't take away the social programs started by Chavez and will manage a peaceful transition of power.
"I ask each Venezuelan to reflect deeply, put your hand on your heart and think if it can be better, and think if after 14 years, whether the one who didn't come through is going to do it in the next six years," Capriles told supporters at a rally on Monday. "Think about it, young people, women."
Chavez, for his part, faces a challenge rare in electoral politics: trying to appear fresh while seeking a third presidential term that would extend his time in office to two decades.
First, Chavez has tried to erase doubts about his health after more than a year of cancer treatment. He's shown up on television singing and dancing, even at times slinging an electric bass guitar over his shoulder and pretending to play to the beat. Nonetheless, he's appeared at fewer rallies and has at times looked noticeably bloated and aged.
He's also gone to great lengths to freshen up his image for younger voters. Instead of his military fatigues, he's been wearing casual blue jackets and occasionally a yellow scarf.
"Who's the candidate of the future?" the president shouted to thousands of supporters during a speech outside Caracas. "Chavez!"
Singing with a band, the president then belted out the lyrics to his campaign jingle: "Chavez, heart of the people!"
On the streets of Caracas, young supporters have painted cartoon-like murals depicting Chavez as a rapper with tattoos, a basketball player and a motorcycle-taxi driver — images apparently geared at making him seem cool to voters who've grown up during his presidency.
Jacqueline Faria, a leading Chavez campaign official, said the murals simply reflect the love Chavez enjoys from Venezuela's youth. "The president has youth, youth exuding from every pore," she said.
The president has also wielded a tougher message, telling voters in speeches that he stands for stability while his opponent represents "chaos" and would do away with the government's popular social programs.
"It would be a true fright, a civil war in Venezuela," Chavez said during a Sept. 11 news conference of a Capriles win. "With our great victory, we are going to continue leaving behind the horror."
Capriles has said he wouldn't touch the government's programs and would improve what he said was their poorly administration.
Chavez has also unleashed scathing rhetoric to paint Capriles as a protector of the wealthy "bourgeoisie," calling his ilk "fascists" and "neo-Nazis."
Last week, Capriles was forced to boot a top aide from his campaign after the lawmaker was caught on video accepting a purported bribe. The grainy video has been replayed for days on state television since the scandal erupted.
Violence has also broken out at campaign events, including a rock-throwing clash before a Capriles rally last week in which police said at least 14 people were hurt.
In his speeches, Capriles has avoided name-calling, referring to his adversary as "the government's candidate" while chiding him for talking much and doing little. However, he has accused Chavez of lying about the government's achievements and neglecting the country's oil industry, infrastructure and agriculture.
"They're importing everything: rice, coffee, beef, milk," Capriles said in a speech this week. He also pointed to dramatically higher murder rates and said that in this vote, "We're going to make a life-and-death decision."
With Capriles focusing on such concrete issues, Chavez "has no choice but to be doubly aggressive," said Alfredo Keller, a Venezuelan pollster and political consultant who says he isn't working for either side.
Trying to hone their strategies, both candidates have reportedly turned to experienced campaign consultants for advice.
Venezuelans newspapers have reported that Chavez hired Brazilian consultant Joao Santana, who ran the campaigns of Brazilian presidents Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Faria said she was unable to confirm the reports and that others in charge of the campaign "have sought out his advisers."
Armando Briquet, Capriles' campaign manager, confirmed that Brazilian campaign consultants Renato Pereira and Francisco Chico Mendez, relative political newcomers, have advised the campaign on some issues. Briquet said, however, that the opposition leader's strategy has been homegrown and focused largely on "opening up spaces for feelings, for people to feel free to express themselves."
Judging from the frenzy at Capriles rallies, the approach is working, especially among his women fans.
"I hugged him! I hugged him!" shouted housewife Andreina Delgado, trembling with excitement after throwing herself at Capriles amid a crowd of supporters in the rural town of Mamporal.
"He's our president," Delgado said, on the verge of tears. "Look at me. I'm overcome with emotion."
Chavez has responded by trying to tie Capriles to the past, recently asking at a campaign rally, "Who's the candidate of the coup plotters of April?" referring to the 2002 putsch that briefly ousted Chavez. He followed with "Who's the candidate of the people? Who's the candidate of the homeland?"
With a slower Chavez, however, Capriles' house-to-house campaigning can't help but conjure memories of another young, charismatic politician who crisscrossed the nation before he first won the presidency in 1998.
This year, the president has had to campaign against that very image of himself.
"To win there has to be a deep emotional connection," Capriles said in an interview on his campaign bus. "I think the government's candidate has worn out his. He doesn't project that energy, that spark."
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