CARACAS, Venezuela — A week before the closely watched presidential election, Venezuela's opposition candidate Henrique Capriles called tens of thousands of supporters onto the streets of the government's stronghold in downtown Caracas on Sunday.
Acting leader Nicolas Maduro has vowed to continue the hard-line socialism of his late boss, Hugo Chavez, if he wins the election on April 14. Maduro was holding a giant rally on Sunday in rural Apure state, on the border with Colombia.
More often seen filled with the red flags and T-shirts of Chavez's loyal supporters, the historic Bolivar Avenue in the center of the capital was packed with opposition supporters decked out in the blue, yellow and red of Capriles' campaign.
"Today we will make our capital overflow with happiness and hope. Let's go!" Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state, said on Twitter.
Despite the opposition leader's optimism, opinion polls give the 50-year-old Maduro a lead of more than 10 percentage points.
Both candidates are touring the South American country during a lightning, 10-day campaign ahead of next Sunday's vote, which was triggered by Chavez's death from cancer on March 5.
It has been a bitter run-up to the election, characterized by deeply personal attacks leveled at each other by Maduro and Capriles, and by accusations of dirty tricks by both sides.
The race took a somewhat surreal turn on Saturday when Maduro said a centuries-old curse would fall on the heads of those who do not vote for him.
Maduro, 50, was a bus driver and union leader who rose to become Chavez's foreign minister and then vice president.
At his rallies, he frequently refers to Chavez in adoring terms and plays a video from December where the former president endorsed Maduro as his successor.
"He taught us the supreme value of loyalty. With loyalty, everything is possible," Maduro told cheering supporters in Apure on Sunday. "Betrayal only brings defeats and curses."
Capriles, who is predicting a late pro-opposition surge as sympathy wears off after Chavez's death, is vowing to install a Brazilian-style administration of free-market economics with strong social welfare policies.
Capriles mocks Maduro as a bad imitation of Chavez. He says Maduro's track record during the late president's sickness and since his death has wrought disaster on Venezuelans through a currency devaluation and price rises.
"This country is broken. I like Capriles . . . the other one is immature. He just wants to be a copy of Chavez," said Gisela Quijada, a 68-year-old nurse attending the opposition rally.
"Chavez was a leader for them, I can't deny it. But he [Maduro] has nothing in his head. If Capriles doesn't win, we'll keep on fighting for him. But we're sure he's going to win!"
The election will decide not only the future of "Chavismo" socialism, but also control of the world's biggest oil reserves and economic aid to left-leaning nations across Latin America and the Caribbean from Cuba to Ecuador.
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