By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Political ads exalting Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez as second only to God have offended opponents and added further controversy to an already spicy election campaign.
State TV is repeatedly playing a minute-long publicity spot highlighting the story of Andres Ospino, who was granted a new home for his family by a state building program. (To view the ad, click on http://bit.ly/O5YTuh )
"I have a saying: 'First God, second my Comandante,'" waxes Ospino in his new apartment after a moody opening sequence of dawn breaking over Caracas. He also calls Chavez "this Bolivar," in reference to 19th century South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
The publicity goes to the heart of Chavez's push for re-election on October 7. The campaign is built around his personality and depends heavily on the government's popular welfare policies that are paid for by oil revenue.
While the promise of a new home is a vote-winner among Venezuela's poor majority, opponents scoff at it as crass electioneering and say the quasi-religious adulation of Chavez is offensive in a Roman Catholic nation.
"It's a vulgar copy of what they did in the Soviet Union under Stalin, of what they still do in Communist Cuba and North Korea," wrote columnist Geronimo Figueroa in a provincial Venezuelan newspaper.
The charismatic 57-year-old former soldier, who has dominated the South American nation since assuming office in 1999, will face a single opposition "unity" candidate, Henrique Capriles, in the election.
CHAVEZ LEADS POLLS
Chavez leads most opinion polls by a double-digit margin thanks to his strong personality and enduring emotional connection with the poor, sympathy over his battle with cancer, the popularity of welfare programs and an uptick in the economy.
The "housing mission" is wildly popular with working-class Venezuelans, and state TV repeatedly churns out statistics of how many homes have been built around the nation.
Capriles, 39, is successfully projecting an image of youth and energy in contrast to the president - who is largely confined to his palace due to his illness - and is drawing large crowds on a nationwide campaign tour.
In the growing publicity war, the opposition cannot match the resources of Chavez, who frequently obliges both state and private TV stations to carry his speeches and appearances live in so-called "cadena," or "chain," broadcasts.
Capriles' supporters did strike a chord with one tongue-in-cheek Internet ad mimicking a sports company's publicity in Venezuela. In the original spot, a young soccer fan is seen reluctantly removing a Brazil shirt - then joyfully donning the colors of his "real passion," Venezuela's national team.
In the satirical version, a man wearing the red of Chavez's ruling Socialist Party says a long farewell, before swapping it for a blue T-shirt emblazoned with Capriles' campaign slogan, "There Is A Way," then running off with a skip in his step. (To view the ad, click on http://bit.ly/KeOFq4 )
While reducing opposition activists to tears of laughter, the ad has drawn derision from the government.
"That loser needs to go the gym and do some exercise," mocked Chavez's campaign head Jorge Rodriguez, in reference to the actor's generous waistline.
(Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Will Dunham)