QUIRIQUIRE, Venezuela – Henrique Capriles pushed into the back of his campaign van and pulled off a sweat-drenched shirt — his third that day. He had red lipstick smeared across his cheek.
With less than a month to go before pivotal presidential elections, the 40-year-old former governor is in a mad dash to visit at least 300 communities before the Oct. 7 vote.
His campaign stops often seem more like athletic events than political rallies: he jogs, and sometimes sprints through towns blowing kisses, giving high-fives and flinging caps off his head into the crowd.
Outspent by his rival and marginalized by the state-run media, Capriles is counting on this grassroots effort to overcome one of the most powerful men in the hemisphere.
President Hugo Chávez, 58, has been in power for almost 14 years and has honed a formidable reelection machine that can shuttle thousands of supporters to his rallies and flood the airwaves with his political events. The courts and the National Election Council seem to march in lockstep with his campaign, Capriles said. It often feels like he’s running against the state, not a man.
Even so, Capriles is convinced his brand of guerrilla campaigning, which has taken him to long-neglected corners of the country, can overcome the Chávez machine.
“No amount of time on television can beat this,” he told The Miami Herald after his security detail yanked him out of another crowd. “This country loves direct contact. It loves to be visited.”
The exertion seems to be paying off. While most polls give the president a comfortable lead, the race appears to be tightening. The Capriles camp has been particularly energized by an August poll from Consultores 21, a respected firm with a long track record, that gives him 48 percent of the vote, a 2-point advantage over Chávez.
The polling firm’s Vice President Saúl Cabrera said Capriles’ talk of political reconciliation and his refusal to be baited by Chávez’s increasingly vicious provocations (the president regularly calls him a majunche jalabolas, which roughly translates to mediocre boot-licker) seems to be paying off in polarized Venezuela.
“For the first time since 1998, I think the opposition has a real chance of winning,” Cabrera said.
During a recent three-day swing through northern Venezuela that took him to three states and more than a dozen towns, staffers were caught off-guard by the size, and enthusiasm, of the crowds. At one stop, over-eager supporters ripped Capriles’ shirt as they embraced him. At another, a pack of screaming women left deep scratches on his arm and a bite on his hand.
In the town of Cumaná, María Rodriguez, 43, sprinted behind Capriles in the rain hoping to catch sight of him.
“We need a change in this country for our children and grandchildren,” said Rodriguez, who has lost two brothers-in-law to violence. “I’ve voted for Chávez for the last 10 years, but enough is enough.”
Capriles has pledged to adopt Brazilian-style economic reforms that will attract private investment even as he keeps Chávez’s popular social programs and raises the minimum wage. He gets some of his biggest applause when he accuses the administration of giving away the nation’s oil wealth and “trying to save humanity” when it can’t even keep the lights on in parts of Venezuela. And while he hopes to encourage Venezuelan exiles, many of whom live in south Florida, to return, he warns those who left fleeing justice that they will have to pay for their crimes. The messages have played well with his supporters and even some disgruntled Chávistas.