Venezuela vote puts 'Chavismo' to critical test

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CARACAS, Venezuela -- For 14 years, Hugo Chavez has charmed them, inspired them and made them believe he is nothing short of their savior.

"Chavistas" are the lifeblood of the Venezuelan leader's leftist movement, and as he runs for re-election Sunday, the question is whether Mr. Chavez still has enough popular appeal to stave off the toughest challenge of his presidency from youthful rival Henrique Capriles. It's a historic test for Latin America's most outspoken and divisive leader -- and for his "Chavismo" movement.

His loyalists have been filling streets all over the country wearing red T-shirts with the slogan "Chavez isn't going away!" They cruise in caravans of motorcycles with posters of a smiling Chavez plastered to the handlebars. At campaign rallies, admirers hand him letters and women scream: "Chavez, I love you!"

For many in the crowds, "El Comandante" is the country's first president to genuinely care about the poor. They're thankful to the former paratrooper for building public housing, expanding free universities and setting up affordable state-run grocery stores.

Some recent polls show Mr. Chavez with a lead of about 10 percentage points over Mr. Capriles, while others put the two candidates roughly even.

Violent crime, 18-percent inflation and accusations of government corruption and ineffectiveness have taken a political toll on Mr. Chavez, and the election will reveal how many remain loyal despite it all -- and whether he still has his popular touch.

In the art of campaigning, Mr. Chavez is an expert. He hugs children joyfully, shouts to supporters and points a finger toward individuals in the crowd. Sometimes, he remembers faces and calls out names.

Even after battling cancer for more than a year, the 58-year-old looked lively and strong in the final week of the campaign, sweating in the intense heat during stops in the cattle-ranching plains where he was born.

Theatrical flair is part of the Chavez allure. Although his public singing, dancing on stage and rambling speeches may seem over-the-top to outsiders, his supporters see it as evidence of his down-to-earth genuineness. It's something Venezuelans have never seen before from a president, and it fits his image as a break in a long line of corrupt politicians culled from the traditional ruling class.

"The president has awakened people," said Maria Virguez, a 60-year-old who stood in line on a recent afternoon to pick up a free copy of a Chavez biography distributed by the government. "If we lose Chavez, the country goes backward."

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