By Andrew Cawthorne
CIUDAD BOLIVAR, Venezuela (Reuters) - Fighting an uphill battle in Venezuela's election, opposition leader Henrique Capriles scoffs at acting president and rival Nicolas Maduro as a non-entity riding on the memory of Hugo Chavez to hide his own incompetence.
In an interview on his campaign bus on Tuesday, Capriles also accused the late president's chosen heir Maduro of trying to distract voters from real problems with wild claims including a U.S.-based plot to kill the opposition candidate.
"Nicolas does not even reach the ankle of President Chavez," Capriles told Reuters, comparing his battle for the upcoming April 14 vote with last year's presidential poll against Chavez.
"Nicolas' biggest weakness is that it seems he doesn't even exist, the only thing you see in the campaign is the image of the president (Chavez) ... Nicolas is just not up to it."
With sympathy over Chavez's death from cancer this month galvanizing government supporters, Maduro, 50, a former bus driver and long-time socialist stalwart, is favorite to win leadership of the South American OPEC nation next month.
Capriles, 40, is determined to stop that by both attacking Maduro's personal capacity and highlighting the plethora of grassroots problems that irritate Venezuelans, ranging from potholes and crime to power cuts and corruption.
The Miranda state governor, a centrist politician who admires Brazil's free-market economics with strong welfare policies, lost to Chavez last year by 11 percentage points.
NOSTALGIA FOR CHAVEZ
But his showing then was the strongest against Chavez during the late president's 14-year socialist rule.
"I was boxing against Cassius Clay! Now I'm facing another boxer, it's a different game," said Capriles, changing out of a sweat-soaked shirt as his bus wended its way through the crowd after a rambunctious rally in southern Ciudad Bolivar.
"I'd have liked to go back up against the same athlete. Sadly, by God's decision, the president died."
Maduro and other government officials accuse Capriles of dishonoring Chavez's memory and offending his family with accusations that they lied over the details of his final days.
A top strategist on Maduro's team forecast this week that Chavez supporters will punish Capriles for his anti-government barbs and that next month's vote will likely end up in a bigger win for the socialists than last year.
Asked about Maduro's accusation that two former U.S. officials plotted to assassinate Capriles, the opposition leader first reeled off a litany of problems facing Venezuelans, from violent crime and shortages of products to rising prices and shoddy roads.
"Nicolas has been in government for 100 days. They look like the worst 100 days of these 14 years," he said in a typical put-down of his rival, using his first name.
"And what does he talk about? A plot. He wants us to talk about (former U.S. official Otto) Reich, and those things. He doesn't want us to talk about what's important on the street for Venezuelans. That's why I don't pay those claims any attention, they are smokescreens."
Capriles said that Maduro, who now describes himself as an "apostle" of Chavez and often addresses the nation alongside images of his late boss, was part of a discredited group whom even 'Chavista' voters would punish at the presidential poll.
Supporters seldom held Chavez personally responsible for their daily problems, often blaming senior officials instead.
"For followers of the president, it was the ministers who were the corrupt, inefficient, incompetent ones who did all the damage. Well, that's the group wanting to govern," Capriles added in the first interview with foreign media of his campaign.
Two opinion polls published this week gave Maduro a lead of more than 14 percentage points.
Most analysts believe Capriles faces a near-impossible task to win, especially given the state's superior campaign resources, the popularity of its many social welfare programs, and the high number of 'Chavistas' in most state institutions.
"The electoral conditions, the abuses, are worse than before," Capriles said, accusing Maduro of acting unconstitutionally by not leaving office while he campaigns.
"Our struggle is more difficult but more heroic, more challenging ... It's a divine, spiritual struggle. I believe God gave us an opportunity to unite the country," said Capriles, a devout Catholic who always wears a crucifix.
The government counters Capriles' depiction of the election as a David vs Goliath fight with its own version - that he is in fact the representative of Venezuela's moneyed, right-wing elite in league with U.S. and other Western "imperialist" interests.
Hoarse but pumped during frenetic campaigning in the vast and mineral-rich southern state of Bolivar, Capriles said there was a limit to how much the emotion over Chavez's death would help Maduro at the ballot box.
"Chavez was Chavez. Nicolas is not Chavez. And the president's supporters are realizing that. They don't like Nicolas," Capriles said.
"I have to fight and try to win. There is a real possibility of winning ... My fight is with the liars and the corrupt ones."
If he wins, Capriles promises to roll back gradually the Chavez-era socialist economic measures, including currency controls and nationalizations that cowed the private sector.
"If I win, I'm sure the profile of Venezuelan debt will improve a lot. Loans will be less costly. I have to reconstruct the economy, generate confidence," he said.
"(Finance Minister Jorge) Giordani is unable to recognize his failure. His economics are from another century. He should go on a course in Brazil, Chile, Peru, or Mexico. Send him to China for a month so they can train him," he laughed.
(Editing by Daniel Wallis and Claudia Parsons)