By Brian Ellsworth
CARACAS (Reuters) - A new poll shows Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez only slightly ahead of challenger Henrique Capriles in the October 7 presidential election, welcome news for the opposition following numerous surveys showing Chavez with a wide lead.
The leftist former soldier is seeking re-election for a third term to extend his self-styled socialist revolution, and he has boosted his public appearances as his health seems to be recovering from a cancer diagnosed last year.
Capriles is seeking to tap into pent-up frustration among the OPEC nation's voters who are weary of high crime, soaring prices and a continuing wave of nationalizations.
Respected pollster Consultores 21 said its most recent survey shows Chavez holding a 3.4 percentage point lead over Capriles in contrast to the double-digit lead that other public opinion groups have given Chavez in recent surveys.
The news highlights the frequent disparities among the polls in Venezuela, where public opinion researchers are often thrust to the center of the country's polarized politics and face constant accusations of favoring one side or the other.
Consultores 21 President Luis Christiansen told Reuters the firm's June survey showed 47.9 percent of voters intend to vote for Chavez compared with 44.5 percent for Capriles.
The poll has a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points and was carried out between June 2 and June 12, he said.
Reuters did not have access to the full poll, which was released only to Consultores 21 clients.
The results were largely in line with the firm's March poll, which showed Chavez with 46.3 percent and Capriles at 44.8 percent. Though Chavez edged up slightly from that poll, the increase is within the margin of error.
Chavez is set to officially launch his candidacy on Sunday with rallies around the country. Earlier this month he brought hundreds of thousands of supporters into the center of Caracas to officially register his candidacy.
Capriles, who is also boosting his public appearances after a months-long "house-by-house tour" through Venezuela meant to win over supporters, has shrugged off negative poll readings and mocked pollsters as government lackeys.
"If you want to get into a booming business right now, do a poll, say the government is ahead, and you'll see the money flowing in," Capriles said during a press conference this week.
He has burnished his image of physical fitness during Chavez's months of convalescence. He walked and jogged 10 km (6.2 miles) to register his own candidacy in the company of hundreds of thousands of supporters.
The last survey by pollster Datanalisis, which is also widely respected, showed Chavez with a 15.9 percentage point lead over Capriles.
Analysts have said part of the reason for the discrepancy between the Datanalisis and Consultores 21 figures is that the former indicates 28.7 percent of voters are undecided - a surprisingly high figure given the country's polarized politics.
The Consultores 21 poll numbers suggest that a maximum of only 7.5 percent of the country's voters are undecided.
Government leaders were quick to interpret the poll as beneficial to Chavez.
"It's significant that that particular pollster, which is so linked to (the opposition), has joined other pollsters that consistently show the patriotic candidate as the favorite," said Information Minister Andres Izarra, referring to Chavez by a catch-phrase frequently used by party members.
Polls are historically controversial in Venezuela. One opposition exit poll in a 2004 recall referendum showed Chavez losing by around 20 percentage points - almost the exact opposite of the result later certified by electoral authorities.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Anthony Boadle)