By Frank Jack Daniel
CARACAS (Reuters) - Criss-crossing Venezuela armed with promises of change, opposition leaders are jostling for position to run against President Hugo Chavez, convinced they can end his long rule with a mix of center-left policies.
The radical former soldier has been in power since 1999 and remains popular among the poor. But foes believe he is finally vulnerable and that the December 2012 election will end his brand of socialism in South America's biggest oil exporter.
Single-minded in preparing for the election, they have no plans to whip up the kind of street protests and military unrest now rocking the Middle East.
A few years ago, opponents of Chavez tried to unseat him in a coup and a crippling shutdown of the oil industry, but he survived and came back stronger. A boycott of parliamentary elections in 2005 left the opposition in the wilderness, although they have since regained some credibility.
"The dynamic is different here. In Venezuela, despite all the difficulties and all the obstacles, there is an electoral window in 2012 and we have to get ready," said Leopoldo Lopez, the former mayor of a wealthy district of Caracas and one of several opposition figures touted as a possible candidate.
Chavez's popularity ratings have dipped under 50 percent because of a sluggish economy, but his rivals know they have to unite behind one candidate to beat the fiery socialist.
At a small rally on a recent chilly night in Caracas, it looked like campaigning was already underway.
"Our next president Leopoldo Lopez!" supporters of the 39-year-old politician chanted as he chatted with reporters before turning to the crowd. "We have 22 months to prepare for change," he responded with a grin.
The 20 or so parties in the Democratic Unity alliance are debating whether to hold primaries before or after Christmas to choose a single candidate and forge a basic platform.
That is easier said than done. They have long been driven by divisions and are leery of abuses by Chavez's government, which has in the past limited opposition advances with rule changes and legal harassment.
Lopez is one of half a dozen men who lead a cluttered group of possible candidates to take on Chavez, but he may not even be allowed to run as he is barred from standing for public office by a corruption case widely seen as politically motivated. He hopes to overturn the ruling.
United since last year, opposition leaders will need to stick together even as they battle for the candidacy, and they also have to convince Venezuelans they are delectable.
Not all the possible candidates are center-left. But, aware that Chavez's social welfare policies have won him swing voters time and time again, many from the ideologically diverse alliance say they cannot run on a conservative ticket.
Leading the group in popularity polls, Henrique Capriles is governor of one of Venezuela's most populous states and at 38 he is part of an energetic younger generation seeking to build a support base in poor neighborhoods.
"In Venezuela, there is no space for right-wing governments," Capriles told Reuters. "The new Venezuela has to be a social project, but very different from the socialism Chavez talks about."
That view was echoed by Henry Ramos Allup, who leads the strongest opposition party Democratic Action and is on a open-ended national tour meeting activists.
"This country basically leans to the democratic left," said Allup, who trails in polls but could still seek the candidacy. "With a good democratic proposal from the left that weakens Chavez's argument, there is no doubt we'll win the elections."
Chavez, whose closest ally is Cuba's communist leader Fidel Castro, has nationalized most of Venezuela's heavy industry, including major oil, steel and cement projects. His control of the OPEC member nation has been boosted by high oil prices but a sharp economic slowdown in the last two years and high inflation have put a dent in his support.
The opposition says it would introduce business-friendly and anti-poverty policies along the lines of Brazil's model of recent years. Opinion is divided on how many industries now in state hands a future opposition government would privatize.
Just over half the votes in legislative elections last year were for opposition candidates, and Chavez foes also gained ground in local elections across Venezuela two years earlier.
Those successes, combined with Chavez's weak performance in areas such as housing and fighting crime, mean his rivals are increasingly self-assured. Some say they risk complacency.
Political analyst Jose Vicente Carrasquero warned that the opposition is too focused on tussles over rules and dates for the primaries, at the expense of challenging Chavez.
"They give an impression of being very centered on internal politics, without paying attention to problems of the people," said Carrasquero, who advised the opposition's disastrous presidential campaign in 2006.
Chavez is a tough and shrewd political operator who has bounced back from lower popularity ratings than now. And with oil prices at their highest levels since 2008, his campaign war chest exceeds anything the opposition can muster.
While some fear Chavez will resist relinquishing power if he loses next year, the current crop of opposition leaders say his hand would be forced by public opinion, or the military.
"The armed forces are the guarantee, the defenders of democracy in Venezuela," Capriles said.
He knows Chavez is certain to exploit the candidates' links to discredited past governments or to well-off families.
"I wasn't born in a slum," Capriles said, speaking in a house owned by his father that is adorned with dusty champagne bottles and Sotheby's auction catalogs.
"But to understand the social reality of our country sometimes that's better. I understand the social reality. Our country cannot advance with the inequality we have."
(Editing by Daniel Wallis and Kieran Murray)