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MARACAY, Venezuela — Henrique Capriles Radonski has been called many things in his uphill fight to unseat Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
Chávez has constantly ridiculed him as a majunche ("nobody") and a U.S. lackey. Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro called him "queer," while government ministers have said that he is a right-wing reactionary.
On Sunday, Oct. 7, however, Capriles's detractors may have to call him something else: winner.
Capriles, 40, handsome, and single, has emerged as the first viable democratic challenger in 14 years to Chávez, the eccentric socialist leader who styles himself the ideological heir to Fidel Castro. Young and photogenic, Capriles has barnstormed the country, visiting more than 300 cities since he began his campaign.
Drawing big crowds along the way -- along with women imploring him to select them as his first lady -- Capriles has sought to differentiate himself from the cancer-stricken Chávez, 58, by his vigor and energy. He often wades into crowds or breaks into a jog during his fact-finding campaign caminatas ("walks") through towns and cities.
Capriles has criticized Chávez for spending too much money and time on promoting his socialist revolution at home and abroad, at the expense of the needs of the country's 29 million inhabitants. He has also harped on Venezuela's soaring crime rate -- the number of homicides in Venezuela last year exceeded 19,000, more than the United States and Europe combined -- as well as the breakdown in government services and the lack of employment opportunities for youth during Chávez's tenure.
"Our country wants to be better, and come Oct. 8, it will be better," Capriles said in a campaign stop this week in the southwestern state of Táchira before a crowd of thousands.
Despite his youth, Capriles has spent decades climbing the ladder of Venezuelan politics. He is the former governor of Venezuela's second-most populous state, Miranda, where he improved health services and education. He was first elected to the country's National Assembly in 1998, before being elected two years later as mayor of Baruta, a part of Greater Caracas.
Arrested and briefly imprisoned in 2002 for events tied to the takeover of the Cuban Embassy during a failed coup against Chávez, Capriles beat Chávez's right-hand man, Diosdado Cabello, in 2008 for the governorship of Miranda.
"The candidate of the government says he needs six more years to fix the country's problems,'' Capriles said at the rally. "But if he hasn't fixed them in 14 years, what makes him think he can do it in the next six?"
Although Chávez and his backers paint Capriles as a right-wing tool of the United States, his political instincts are in reality far more moderate. He models himself after former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and has promised to invest heavily in developing Venezuela's industries to generate jobs. He has also promised to maintain and improve many of Chávez's social programs -- albeit with the caveat of opening them up to all Venezuelans and just not supporters of the president. He would also curtail Venezuela's close relationship with Cuba, Iran, and Belarus.
Don't count Chávez out, however. The incumbent has proved himself to be a political survivor. He withstood a coup in 2002 and a recall vote in 2004, and this time around he has sought to portray the election as a matter of life and death for the country and his Bolivarian Revolution. Urging voters to put aside complaints about the country's faltering infrastructure and constant power outages and water shortages, Chávez has promised that he will do better if reelected.