By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - She has been called a "little bourgeois" by President Hugo Chavez, had shots fired at her team during a campaign stop, and seen a private phone conversation with her mother played on national TV.
Yet Venezuela's only female aspirant for the 2012 presidential election, Maria Corina Machado, is not only undeterred but also spicing up the opposition's primary election with her bold style and strong views.
"We have learned an important lesson during these 13 years: with populism, militarism and communism, you get more poverty, violence and exclusion," she told Reuters.
Next year's vote is an "historical chance to produce a rupture" with Chavez, she said.
Though running behind two state governors and a former mayor in polls ahead of the February 12 primary, Machado is widely considered to have beaten her opposition rivals in two televised debates due to her command of figures and eloquence.
The 43-year-old member of parliament has seldom been out of the headlines since bullets were fired at her bus after she inaugurated a softball game in a slum considered a Chavez stronghold and just a stone's throw from his palace.
She accuses pro-government gangs of harassing her and says one round grazed an aide. Officials insist she exaggerated the incident, and they played a phone chat with her mother afterward on state TV to try to prove it.
Other opposition candidates have seen punches, stones and teargas on the campaign trail, leading Machado to say that Venezuela is in for a violent run-up to the primary and the October 7, 2012, presidential vote.
"They use violence to inhibit protests and political participation," she said, adding that bellicose rhetoric from the president had created an ugly mood on the streets.
"This atmosphere in our country started with a speech and attitude by President Chavez of violence, of offense, of dividing Venezuelan society."
Chavez has said he would love to run against "the little bourgeois girl" at next year's election - presumably because it would let him contrast his working class roots and socialism with her well-heeled background and right-wing politics.
LINKED TO GEORGE W. BUSH
Machado remains a favorite target for die-hard "Chavistas," who love to show a photo of her smiling in the White House with former U.S. President George W. Bush.
They also remember her anti-Chavez activism with a nongovernmental organization that collected signatures in 2004 calling for his resignation.
Last month the police threatened to sue her for saying that 12,000 small drug-trafficking gangs existed in Venezuela.
So how does she feel about being so hated by officialdom?
"It is because I represent precisely the opposite of what this government is," the mother of three and industrial engineering graduate said in an interview on Monday.
"He (Chavez) is military, and I represent citizenship. He talks about dividing a society with aggression and violence, I promote ... one people, one country. He does not respect progress and private sector and investment, I talk about freedom, about every citizen growing with his own effort."
Machado's "popular capitalism" - as opposed to Chavez's "21st century socialism" - is not only a red rag to the government but also a provocative slogan in a nation with a history of statism and populism.
The independent candidate is popular in wealthy districts of the capital Caracas. But she also did well in poor areas at last year's parliamentary poll.
Raised as the eldest of four daughters by conservative, Catholic parents, Machado believes being the only female candidate in a country where so many households are run by women - due to family breakdowns - would be an advantage.
"Venezuelan society is centered around mothers," she said. "For me, it's a huge responsibility to represent these women who have been silenced and excluded for decades, but it's also politically a great opportunity."
Should she win, or be part of a post-Chavez opposition government, Machado said she would push to end shipments of subsidized oil to allies like Cuba, and would also seek to add transparency to billion-dollar loan deals with China.
She hopes Chavez will stand in 2012 despite his recent cancer treatment, so he could be beaten at the ballot box.
"I really ask God not to let him die."
(Editing by Daniel Wallis and Xavier Briand)