By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - On a heady night in mid-February, Henrique Capriles roared himself hoarse with optimism at his victory rally in Caracas after trouncing rivals to win the Venezuelan opposition's presidential ticket.
Three months later, despite an exhausting "house-by-house" tour intended to galvanize the nation behind him, Capriles remains firmly stuck behind President Hugo Chavez in most polls.
In some, he has actually slipped a point or two.
Furthermore, the opposition's meticulously-planned campaign has failed so far to divert Venezuelans' attention from the all-consuming subject of Chavez's battle against cancer in an increasingly surreal run-up to the October 7 election.
Capriles' biggest policy announcement to date - vowing to create 3 million jobs in six years - made few inroads into newspaper headlines and street conversations obsessively picking over the rumors about Chavez's treatment in Cuba.
"Capriles could be out anywhere today, but the rest of the country does not know about it," said local pollster Oscar Schemel. His figures show Capriles static since winning the opposition primary, at 34 percent support versus 53 percent for Chavez.
"ONLY TALKING OF CHAVEZ"
Even the militantly pro-opposition newspaper, Tal Cual, suggested the Capriles campaign was looking dull.
One of its columnists asked how the image of Capriles pledging to create jobs could compete with that of Chavez calling on God to give him life to serve the Venezuelan people, while pouring oil revenues into pre-election social programs.
"Capriles' strategy is not working, his candidacy is not growing, and Chavez's illness has hyper-personalized electoral debate. People are only talking about Chavez," added Schemel.
Being the center of attention is, of course, nothing new for a man who, since winning the 1998 presidential election, has dominated Venezuela with his radical socialism, charismatic style and aggressive stance against U.S. "imperialism."
Capriles and his aides scoff at Schemel and others among Venezuela's numerous pollsters, pointing out their failure to predict either the landslide nature of his primary win, with 62 percent, or the unexpectedly large turnout of 3 million voters.
The uber-confident Capriles, 39, also likes to remind Venezuelans that he has never lost a vote and defied popular wisdom to convincingly win the Miranda state governorship in 2008 against powerful Chavez loyalist Diosdado Cabello.
Asked during a visit to Colombia this week about his failure to climb in the polls, Capriles challenged his audience to remember that day and pledged that he would soon be back visiting as president of Venezuela.
His team is questioning the accuracy of polls.
"People are scared of revealing their real political intention, for fear of retaliation," Maria Corina Machado, one of Capriles' campaign leaders, told Reuters.
"Especially as the state every day tells public servants and beneficiaries of social programs that if they are not with the government, they are enemies and will lose everything."
With only one survey showing Capriles with less than a two-digit gap behind Chavez, senior government figures are mocking the opposition mercilessly.
State media commentators rant for hours each day about the "loser" candidate and his "ultra-right" connections, illustrating their point with ever-more creative cartoons or slowed-down TV clips to try and make him look demonic.
The youthful Capriles has styled himself on Brazil's 'modern left' political model, vowed to build on the best of Chavez's popular welfare policies, and honed an energetic, on-the-street style reminiscent of the president's early days.
His strategy so far has been based on two principles: focusing on Venezuelans' main day-to-day problems like unemployment and crime, and pounding the streets to enter homes and shake hands in every last corner of the country.
That has offended Chavez stalwarts, who portray Capriles as a defender of Venezuela's wealthy, pro-U.S. elite now pathetically masquerading as a man of the people.
"He's tried to wear the president's clothes. He wants to use the president's language, he talks about 'the people', but he can barely get the words out of his throat," his old foe Cabello mocked at a news conference this week.
THE CANCER FACTOR
Capriles has noticeably upped the ante in recent days, matching Chavez at his own game with a stream of critical messages via Twitter. While not speculating over Chavez's health, he lambastes him for "governing by telephone" from Cuba.
The general consensus among Wall Street and political analysts is that Capriles is unlikely to defeat Chavez under normal circumstances due to the president's emotional connection with the poor, the enduring popularity of his welfare policies, and an uptick in the economy.
Yet the circumstances are manifestly abnormal.
Chavez has only been seen live once since April 13, fuelling speculation the cancer he was diagnosed with a year ago has spread and become potentially fatal.
While that may have given him a sympathy bump in polls so far, it could also mean he reaches October 7 physically diminished - or maybe does not reach the election at all.
And there, the polls change, showing that Capriles would likely defeat all of Chavez's principal allies. There is also the chance that the sympathy vote fades and more Venezuelans see Capriles as a better option than a very sick Chavez.
So even in opposition circles, there is way more talk over Chavez's pelvis - where the cancer was supposed to have emanated - and who would be in pole position to replace him, than of the Capriles campaign.
"His struggle to get the public attention looks to be even harder than before, thanks to the soap opera that is Chavez's current status and the mystery of 'Chavismo's' internal situation," lamented opposition blogger Gustavo Hernandez Acevedo.
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore and Julia Cobb in Caracas, Eduardo Garcia in Bogota; Editing by Kieran Murray)