By Daniel Wallis
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez compared his election rival to "far-right" U.S. presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on Saturday, saying both men wanted to subjugate the country under capitalism and crush his socialist "revolution."
South America's top oil exporter will hold its ballot on October 7, a month before the November 6 U.S. election. Chavez is in full campaign mode, aiming for a new six-year term and saying he is fit and well after three cancer operations in the past year.
The two electoral races bumped against each other last week when President Barack Obama and his Republican rival, Romney, sparred over the risk posed by Chavez, and the Venezuelan leader sought to soften his radical image a touch by saying Obama was a "good guy."
Holding forth at a large rally in the western city of Maracaibo where he sang and pretended to play the guitar with a band, Chavez said opposition candidate Henrique Capriles resembled Romney, who hopes to replace Obama in the White House.
"What could better explain his program?" he asked. "Maybe it's the far-right candidate in North America, Romney. It's their plan. Their plan is to subjugate Venezuela again to the service of imperialism, of capitalism."
Chavez, 57, faces the toughest political challenge of his 14 years in power at October's election, and his fate has big consequences for many South and Central American nations that benefit from the former soldier's oil-fueled largesse.
His illness has limited his on-the-street campaigning, but he has kept a double-digit lead in most polls, thanks largely to big welfare spending and the emotional connection that even fierce critics concede he shares with Venezuela's poor majority.
Since easily winning the opposition's primaries in February, Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor, has kept up a punishing schedule of "house-by-house" campaign visits across the country.
He says his offer to set up a Brazilian-style administration that would be market-friendly but remain committed to social spending is being well received nationwide, that the polls are unreliable and that his efforts will pay off on election day.
'HE IS NOTHING'
Boasting his trademark red beret at the rally on Saturday, Chavez mocked Capriles' intellect and said it did not matter if he had visited so much of Venezuela in such a short time.
"So what if he's visited 80 towns in 15 days? ... The loser can't explain anything because he knows nothing. He is nothing. He represents what they call nihilism: nothing, the negation of everything," Chavez said.
"He's trying to cheat people so he's taken on this 'ghost' strategy. Wooo! Scaring people, wooo! They ask him something and he just keeps running," he said, mimicking a child wearing a bed sheet and pretending to be ghost.
That drew laughter from the crowd, including one man who had been waving a large cardboard cutout of Chavez gripping a frightened-looking Capriles in a head lock and swinging a boxing glove-clad fist.
Last week, Romney said he was stunned and shocked after Obama told an interviewer Chavez's actions in recent years had not had a serious impact on U.S. security.
Obama's team countered that Romney was just giving Chavez the attention he craved, but Romney said Obama's comments showed a pattern of weakness in the president's foreign policy.
Both sides in Venezuela's election are focused on the quarter of voters who polls say may not have decided who to pick in October. The U.S. campaign spat over his role gave Chavez the chance to moderate his rhetoric and strike a conciliatory tone.
He went quickly on TV stressing that Venezuela was no threat to anyone, that he was a force for regional peace and integration, and accusing "snipers" in the United States of sabotaging any improvement in relations between Caracas and Washington.
(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago; Editing by Peter Cooney)