Vote in Venezuela puts 'Chavismo' to critical test
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 on Sunday, the question is whether Chavez still has enough popular appeal to stave off the toughest challenge of his presidency from youthful rival Henrique Capriles.
This is a historic test for Latin America's most outspoken and divisive leader -- and for his "Chavismo" movement.
Chavez loyalists have been filling streets and wearing red T-shirts with the slogan "Chavez isn't going away!" They cruise with posters of a smiling Chavez plastered to their caravan 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 Chavez with a lead of about 10 percentage points over 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 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, 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.
He exclaims, "Hola compadre!" and "God bless you!"