By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Tired and hungry after hours of working crowds under a blistering Caribbean sun, Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles needs a rest and some food back in his campaign bus.
Yet the sports-loving folk of Baralt, a hard up and dusty district in Venezuela's western oil belt, seldom see VIPs and urge him to join a local basketball game.
Capriles needs little persuading. Tearing up and down the court, scoring several times and picking himself up after being knocked off his feet, the man who wants to be Venezuela's next president is cheered after his side wins the hour-long game.
"Man, he can really play! That wasn't your usual politician's photo opportunity," says one admiring local, 24-year-old Johan Arismendi, watching from the sidelines.
In an uphill battle to end President Hugo Chavez's 13-year grip on the South American nation at an election in October, Capriles has an ace card - youth - and he knows how to play it.
The sinuous, 39-year-old governor of Miranda state has embarked on a three-month, "house-by-house" tour of the country designed as much to show off his energy as his ideas.
Still trailing Chavez in all polls, he certainly needs it.
Honing a populist style that has served him well since he was Venezuela's youngest parliamentarian at 26, Capriles dons boots and T-shirts most days. It was a rare change of style when he put on a suit jacket for the televised debates ahead of this year's opposition primaries.
He uses a motorbike to beat traffic jams and reach pot-holed slums where he spends more time than in his office. At night, he often winds down with a game of basketball, or a jog.
The zestful image is deliberate; the contrast none-too-subtle.
First, Capriles has broken with Venezuela's "old guard" of opposition leaders, most in their 50s and 60s, who failed to dislodge Chavez through half a dozen elections, several strikes, mass street protests and even a short-lived coup in 2002.
More importantly, though, the contrast between the fresh-faced Capriles and convalescent Chavez is there for all to see. Not only is he 18 years older, Chavez has aged notably and slowed down drastically since being diagnosed with cancer last year.
Currently undergoing radiation therapy after three operations in less than a year to remove two malignant tumors from his pelvis, Chavez's health problems have piled up just as his rival is hitting the streets.
"I have youth and strength in abundance. What you see here is just the beginning," said Capriles, rattling off catch-phrases, anecdotes and statistics in a series of interviews with Reuters on campaign trips round Venezuela.
"The Socialist Party candidate (Chavez) no longer walks and talks with the people - and I mean from long before his health problems. I wish him a speedy recovery so he can see the changes coming to Venezuela."
The cheekiness in those backhanded best wishes and in copying some of the most successful traits of Chavez's own campaign style have irked the socialist leader and his supporters no end.
State TV commentators routinely spit bile at Capriles, calling him the "copycat" or "chameleon candidate."
One TV spot mockingly showed him telling a crowd "Those who want progress, come with us!" followed by footage of a similar line from Chavez: "Those who want fatherland, come with me!"
Even though he still has a large lead over Capriles in most surveys, the charismatic Chavez - whose humble origins and quasi-religious emotional connection with the poor have underpinned his rule - is clearly stung.
After all, Capriles is attempting to do just what he did: come from behind and defy popular wisdom to win a presidential election with an indefatigable, on-the-street campaign.
"The people receive Henrique in their homes just like they did with Chavez before. Believe me, I know, because I was a 'Cha vista'," Henri Falcon, a state governor and former ally of the president who broke with him two years ago, told Reuters.
"Nowadays, Chavez is all TV. Henrique is the street."
Indeed, one of Capriles' favorite campaign vows is to end Chavez's famous TV "cadenas". Meaning "chains" in English, the government uses them to oblige all terrestrial TV stations - private and state - to tune into the same broadcast of Chavez giving a speech, unveiling a project or chairing a meeting.
They often last for hours, and Chavez has been known to hold three or four in a single day. "Less TV and more work," is Capriles' mantra, though his own news conferences also tend to be lengthy, his answers sometimes verbose and repetitive.
Despite coming from a wealthy family, rising in a right-wing political party, and now flying the flag for a coalition representing the full ideological spectrum of opposition groups, Capriles defines himself as a center-left politician.
He wants to bring Brazilian-style policies to Venezuela: free-market conditions so private business can get back on its feet, alongside strong state welfare policies to combat poverty.
That has led some to define him as "Chavez lite": a man who would keep the best of Chavez's social "missions" that provide free services to the poor, while ending the war on the private sector.
The missions, ranging from subsidized rice to free clinics staffed by Cuban doctors, are a mainstay of Chavez's popularity.
The government is at pains to paint Capriles as the representative of Venezuela's small, wealthy, pro-U.S. elite - the very sector that held power for decades before Chavez swept them away.
That is perhaps Capriles' weakest point for Venezuela's poor majority. He grew up in luxury - his family have a big cinema chain and other businesses - whereas Chavez was raised in his grandmother's rural shack.
Physically, the European-looking Capriles, whose Jewish maternal grandparents fled the Nazis, looks like a member of Venezuela's elite. Chavez's darker-skinned features immediately bond him with the poor, and he exploits that.
Chavez cannot bring himself to mention Capriles' name - but he has a wide range of alternatives.
Last month, just as aides were briefing that Chavez's re-election campaign would be all about "love" (a clever, intangible and hard-to-combat slogan) the quixotic president called his rival a "pig" five times in just two sentences.
If that raised eyebrows, Chavez's underlings have been even more unrestrained. "Fascist", "Zionist" and "Nazi" are but a few of the epithets flying around about Capriles, the latter two bandied about together without a trace of irony.
One diehard Chavista state TV commentator, Mario Silva, read out documents purporting to show Capriles was caught by police in a car having oral sex with another man. On another episode of his late-night talkshow, a cackling Silva showed a cartoon of Capriles wearing pink shorts and a swastika on his arm.
"To call me a Nazi is unbelievable ignorance when my grandmother suffered in the Warsaw ghetto," said Capriles, who also lost two great grandparents in German concentration camps.
"The insults show their fear and desperation. I have no desire to respond. Venezuelans are tired of this, they want solutions to their problems, not more insults and fighting."
While many Venezuelans would agree with that in general, they want to hear more of Capriles' specific proposals.
He has railed against crime and unemployment as the country's major ills, yet not been very specific in saying how he will make the nation safe again or create the hundreds of thousands of extra jobs that are needed.
Similarly, when talking about oil - Venezuela's all-important cash cow - Capriles has repeated every politician's line that crude production must be raised, while the economy must be diversified away from over-dependence on 'black gold'.
Yet beyond promising a less politicized management of state oil company PDVSA, and to end subsidized supplies to political allies like Cuba or Nicaragua, he has not really explained how he would succeed where others have failed.
He would clearly plan to dismantle "Chavenomics" - the radical statist policies like nationalizations, currency controls, price freezes and persecution of private financiers.
But he says that must only be done gradually to avoid economic panic and chaos, making for a tricky balancing act.
Apart from Chavez's charisma, the government's other great weapon against Capriles is its social missions. Officials have convinced a large portion of Venezuelans that the opposition would scrap them straight after the election.
Capriles denies that, saying he will in fact build on them, erasing only the corruption and inefficiency that has come with them. The appreciation of voters in Miranda state for his education and health policies there seems to bear that out.
"I am going to take the 'r' off 'revolution' to give Venezuela 'evolution' instead," Capriles said.
In a race he sees as the perfect preparation for taking on Chavez, Capriles beat one of the president's most powerful allies, Diosdado Cabello, to win the Miranda state governorship in 2008. And polls show that were Chavez to step down due to his cancer, Capriles would comfortably beat Cabello or any other successor.
Far from Miranda one day in a pro-Chavez stronghold in western Venezuela, Capriles' aides arrived early in the morning for a pre-arranged event where he was to walk the streets.
To their surprise, workmen had got there first and begun digging up the rough earth streets. A digger blocked the road.
The timing was suspicious and though the standoff was finally resolved with a lot of loud talk and a few backslaps, it was a symbol for the Capriles camp of how the government plans to put up obstacles in his way at every turn.
They are particularly nervous about going into some of the most militantly pro-Chavez slums of Caracas, where guns abound and gangs rule. At the last attempt, in a Caracas neighborhood called Cotiza, gunmen fired into the air and at least two people were injured by bullets.
The government blamed Capriles' bodyguards, but the opposition said it was deliberate intimidation by armed Chavistas, and many Venezuelans read it as a warning that Capriles should not push his cause too strongly in such areas.
As he did with Manuel Rosales, his rival in the last election campaign, Chavez has announced the discovery by state security forces of an assassination plot against Capriles coming from extremists within the opposition.
Chavez provided no evidence of the plot, and Capriles dismissed it as "irresponsible" talk.
Capriles is certainly viewed as too "soft" by some in the opposition who would prefer him to be openly antagonistic to Chavez, whom they detest.
In an election campaign that everyone expects to be rough, the government is sure to zoom in on Capriles' business links - he is believed to have plenty of wealthy supporters behind the scenes - as evidence of his real agenda.
Inevitably, his role in a murky incident at the Cuban Embassy in 2002 will also be raked over. Capriles was accused of inciting a mob outside the building and even "invading" the premises, but he says that as mayor of the local district he was only mediating and trying to calm things down.
Though acquitted in the end, he did serve four months in jail over the incident - giving him yet more in common with Chavez, who was jailed after a 1992 coup attempt.
Capriles came out of prison professing a more devout Catholicism, and has worn a rosary round his neck and made an annual pilgrimage to a shrine ever since.
Should he win power, he will face enormous challenges: holding the diverse opposition coalition together, handling a judiciary and parliament still packed with Chavez allies, unpicking 14 years of nationalizations, reconciling the nation, and revitalizing the private sector, to name but a few.
Yet despite the crowds thronging round him in the villages and towns he gamely tramps through each day, at times it still seems a far-off prospect to imagine Capriles puzzling those challenges from the Miraflores presidential palace that Chavez has made home over the last 13 years.
"He's trying so hard to be like our 'comandante', it's pathetic. He doesn't have a chance," said Chavez supporter Sileyda Guevere, 40, after barracking Capriles during one tour.
"After God we have Bolivar, and after Bolivar we have Chavez," she said, referring to South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
"We love Chavez, it's that simple. He is our father, he is our fatherland. There is no one else."
(Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Kieran Murray)