By Mica Rosenberg and Diego Ore
CARACAS (Reuters) - Cranes tower over new apartment blocks in Venezuela's capital where President Hugo Chavez's government plans to house 20,000 poor families as part of a populist pre-election spending push.
Though finished, the buildings stand empty - waiting for the usual fanfare inauguration of such projects by Chavez himself.
The socialist leader is in Cuba convalescing after a third cancer surgery, so the question is when - or even if - Chavez will be strong enough to cut the ribbon.
The charismatic Chavez has been in campaign mode for most of his 13-year rule, and his signature style of personally meeting the beneficiaries of his welfare programs has helped him win re-election and extend his powers in the South American nation.
Now facing potentially debilitating radiation treatment or after a second malignant tumor was removed from his pelvis, the once-inexhaustible Chavez, 57, is being forced to slow down just as he goes into what could be his toughest election yet.
"Unfortunately you are not going to see that much of me," a reflective Chavez said from Cuba, where he is recovering from surgery late last month after a recurrence of the cancer that struck him in 2011. "I'm forced to confront this new situation, to rethink my personal agenda and take better care of myself."
Chavez has denied rumors that his cancer has spread but if his health worsens and less-popular ministers are pushed into the spotlight on his behalf, voters will wonder if a weakened Chavez can govern for another six-year term.
Nobody, though, is writing off a man who has overcome so much in the past - U.S. opposition, massive street protests, a strike that paralyzed the oil industry and a coup that briefly toppled him from power.
With savvy use of media and the internet, and drawing on his unique emotional connection with the poor, Chavez still has a high chance of triumphing yet again if he can stay well enough.
That might mean running a "virtual" campaign largely from Caracas and making the most of any personal appearances he is able to make in slums and rural areas.
"He won't be in physical shape to visit every corner of the country," said Glen Martinez, who runs a pro-Chavez community radio station in a hilly neighborhood spray-painted with murals of Mexican guerrilla leader Subcomandante Marcos and of Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader toppled and killed last year.
"But it doesn't matter, if he can't come here, we will go to him, wherever he does show up."
UNDECIDEDS HOLD THE KEY
The cancer saga appears to have tightened the bond with Chavez's most militant backers. One pollster said last month's news gave him a 5 percent popularity bump among hard-core supporters.
"Whoever believes Chavez is destroyed doesn't understand anything. Even now, at this difficult moment, he has half the nation behind him," said another pollster, Luis Vicente Leon.
Unless Chavez's health veers into full recovery or a fatal downturn, the key to the election will likely be how the roughly one-third of undecided voters view a sick candidate.
Formal surveys and interviews on the street show no clear trend yet, although in past elections they have tended to back Chavez. There are, however, universal worries about instability and the lack of a clear successor to Chavez.
"We have no idea if tomorrow Chavez will be okay or have the same strength," said Beatriz Colmenares, 52, describing herself as a "thermometer" for her Caracas apartment building because she mixes with both Chavez and opposition supporters.
"No one trusts the people who are behind him. He just moves them around like chess pieces but they are always the same," added Colmenares, who rents phones for a living.
Chavez's personality-driven administration has prevented the cultivation of an obvious heir, with all the senior figures around him lacking charisma and popularity on the street. Many Venezuelans also tend to blame them, more than Chavez, for rampant corruption, nepotism and inefficiency in services.
Trying to quash rumors of in-fighting, Chavez's aides are repeating a mantra that he remains at the helm.
"Not only are we sure that he will be our candidate, but that he will win on October 7," said the head of Congress, Diosdado Cabello. "It's going to be hard to put the brakes on the president... we'll find the right form of campaign."
The undecided will inevitably contrast signs of Chavez's physical weakness with the image of youth and energy projected by opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, a 39-year-old, motorbike-riding, baseball cap-wearing state governor.
Mocked as a "chameleon" by Chavez, he is emulating the president's on-the-ground approach with daily trips into the slums. Campaign videos show him giving houses built by the state government to elderly women and playing basketball with young people in poor neighborhoods.
Capriles has a long way to go, though, with the latest poll - albeit a disputed one on a small sample - giving him 34 percent support versus 52 for Chavez in voter intentions.
The opposition's big challenge is to invent their own proposals to compete with Chavez's enormously popular oil-funded social programs, like the "Great Venezuelan Housing Mission," that has built tens of thousands of new houses.
"Chavez will not be able to run the campaign he wants to, but he doesn't need to campaign as much as Capriles," said Leon.
Probably foreshadowing the race to come, even from his Cuban hospital Chavez kept himself in the spotlight via Twitter messages, phone calls to state TV, a drip-drip of photos and videos, and a televised cabinet meeting.
The only person giving information on his condition, Chavez has not said what kind of cancer he has or laid out a detailed prognosis, though he has announced he will need radiation treatments which are bound to take a heavy physical toll.
Cancer experts say the treatment could last for a couple of months with nasty side-effects possible towards the end.
"The pelvis is a bit tricky because the field where he would have to have radiotherapy would encompass the rectum and the bladder and part of the small bowel so he is likely to have symptoms derived from the treatment," said Sunil Daryanani, an oncologist at the Hospital de Clinicas Caracas.
Whether the former soldier could recover before the campaign really kicks in has become a national guessing game.
Last year, when surgeons removed a baseball-sized tumor, many thought Chavez would take more of a back seat.
Yet even after chemotherapy that left him bald and bloated, Chavez played baseball, danced in public, hosted a regional summit, gave the world's longest-ever presidential speech, and merrily declared himself "completely cured."
His optimism, which convinced six in ten Venezuelans he was free of cancer according to polls, was proven wrong with this year's recurrence, and Venezuelans are now much more skeptical about whether he can stage a full recovery.
Though possibly enhancing its chances of victory, the affair has sucked some of the air out of the headlines and momentum the opposition garnered from a primary election where a higher-than-expected 3 million voters participated. It has also overshadowed everyday problems like rampant crime and high cost of living.
Capriles' team is sticking to its strategy, wishing the president a speedy recovery while asking for more transparency about his condition, and trying to return the focus to issues like crime, jobs and health services.
"We don't agree with a country where the president decides everything about what we should know (on his health), and he is the central plank of the nation," Capriles' campaign manager Armando Briquet said.
(Writing by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Kieran Murray)