By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Sweating, hoarse and jostled at every turn, opposition leader Henrique Capriles is back pounding Venezuela's streets, exhorting crowds and fuming about corruption and shortages.
Capriles' profile faded after his failed presidential runs in 2012 and 2013 but the Miranda state governor is again on the political front line, this time driving an opposition push for a referendum to remove President Nicolas Maduro.
"The only way to fix Venezuela's crisis is asking Venezuelans," he told Reuters after a day campaigning in the pressure-pot nation reeling from economic hardships, protests and viciously polarized politics.
Even though government officials insist a recall referendum will not take place this year, Capriles' new-found protagonism is restoring his image among Venezuela's opposition supporters.
Some had dismissed him as a loser despite doing well in the 2012 election against late socialist leader Hugo Chavez and almost beating Maduro a few months later after Chavez's death.
Supporters of hardline opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez painted Capriles as cowardly for not pressing vote fraud claims more aggressively in 2013 or backing street protests in 2014.
Yet he is now tied with the imprisoned Lopez as the most popular opposition figure, according to one recent poll. He could even have a third stab at the presidency should Maduro be recalled this year, triggering an election.
"He's recovering his lost splendor," said Luis-Vicente Leon, a leading pollster.
Under the constitution, a recall referendum is possible from half-way through the six-year presidential term but the opposition coalition needs it this year if Maduro's potential departure is to force a new election.
"Chavez subjected himself to a recall referendum, why not Maduro?" Capriles added, warning of a possible military coup or social explosion if the government and electoral authorities block such a vote.
If Maduro were to go next year, his vice-president would take over, probably prolonging "Chavismo" until the next presidential election at the end of 2018.
The Capriles camp is frustrated the opposition's concerted push began in April rather than January, as soon as it took control of Congress following big wins in legislative elections. The coalition's two dozen parties were unable to quickly reach a consensus over strategy.
Seizing on that delay, the government says there is now no time for a vote this year. It also accuses the opposition of inflating its first signature drive with the names of 10,000 dead people.
The election board is dragging its feet on the complex procedures involved: 1 percent of registered voters' signatures to start the process, then 20 percent to request the referendum.
"The government is trying to sow the idea there isn't time," Capriles said. "That is false ... Twelve years ago, they organized a recall referendum in four months," he added, referring to Chavez's August 2004 referendum victory.
The opposition's signature drive actually began in the second half of 2003 for that poll, which Chavez won with 58 percent in one of numerous vote wins during his 1999-2013 rule.
Officials accuse Capriles of trying to foment violence, recalling his activism during a short-lived 2002 coup against Chavez, and have revived old innuendoes about his sexuality.
On the street, the wiry and sports-loving governor is taking a more militant approach. At one march, he followed youths who burst onto a highway and was pepper-sprayed in the face by a security official in the melee.
Despite government prohibitions and a Supreme Court ruling protecting the election board's premises, Capriles says the marches will continue even though numbers have not been massive, reaching just a few thousand in Caracas.
That, he says, is because people are preoccupied with daily problems, including hours-long lines for ever-scarcer food.
Opposition leaders are cheered by a build-up of international pressure against Maduro's government, including a push this week by the head of the Organization of American States (OAS) to have Venezuela suspended from the regional grouping for violating its democratic principles.
"Maduro is like a pariah ... Who wants to have their photo taken with him?," said Capriles, who describes himself as a center-leftist.
While Capriles may be the opposition's man of the moment, there is still quiet carping in some quarters of the opposition, especially among hardliners.
Some believe the referendum drive is doomed and Capriles has no alternative strategy, meaning his star will wane again and the more aggressive tactics prescribed by Lopez will be vindicated.
"Henrique is trying to play by the rules of a normal democracy, but Maduro is a dictator and won't go like that. Leopoldo was right all long," said one Lopez supporter, identifying himself only as Luis, at a recent rally.
(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne Additonal reporting by Daniel Kai; Editing by Kieran Murray and Alistair Bell)