By Andrew Cawthorne
LA GUAIRA, Venezuela (Reuters) - The crowds are bigger, his speeches slicker, and Venezuela's young opposition leader Henrique Capriles is on a roll in a final, frenzied push to end President Hugo Chavez's socialist rule.
With just 12 days left before the OPEC nation's presidential election, the 40-year-old state governor is whipping up crowds like never before, creeping up in the polls and becoming increasingly aggressive in his attacks on Chavez's policies.
"We've never had a candidate like him," gushed shopkeeper Andrea Gomez, 42, screaming at Capriles like a teenage girl at a pop concert as he went by, blowing kisses during an open-top cavalcade along the Caribbean coast north of Caracas.
"It's like Chavez in 1998, when he won the presidency. But Henrique has surpassed that. He is closer to the people."
Capriles has clearly made big inroads among the working class where Chavez has his power-base, but he still faces suspicions - gleefully stoked by the government - that he will end Chavez's popular welfare programs and is too much of a rich kid.
Chavez, 58, is still a formidable campaigner and even his opponents admit he has a genuine emotional connection with many Venezuelans, especially the poor.
Yet while a majority of big pollsters still put Chavez in front, two - Consultores 21 and Varianzas - have Capriles just ahead, and his numbers have inched up in others.
Opposition activists insist the poll numbers are distorted by a "fear factor" - for instance, government employees wary of reprisals if they show support for Capriles - and therefore underestimate their man's real popularity.
Either way, Capriles seems certain to have the best tilt at Chavez that anyone has managed during his 14-year rule.
OPPOSITION'S BEST BET YET
Crisscrossing the country for most of 2012, the business-friendly law graduate first won an opposition primary with ease and has been gathering steam - and honing his style - ever since en route to the October 7 vote.
A devout Catholic who always wears a cross and often visits shrines, the tireless Capriles has based his strategy on a nationwide "house-by-house" tour. That has made him familiar to voters from remote Amazon villages and Andean highlands to cattle-ranching plains and city slums.
Dashing around the country by bus and plane, Capriles typically visits three or four places a day, often joining in games of basketball in a tactic that highlights his youth and energy.
The contrast with Chavez - also famous for his energy but more subdued on this campaign after two bouts with cancer - is deliberate.
Knowing that support for him is guaranteed in Venezuela's wealthier circles, where Chavez is widely hated, Capriles has targeted the South American nation's grittier, poorer areas.
In the port city of La Guaira, some pockets of Chavez supporters booed and threw plastic bottles, but thousands of other residents gathered to cheer Capriles with fervor.
The wiry opposition leader bears scratches from female admirers grabbing at him in the crowds, downs Red Bulls to keep his energy up, and has earned the affectionate nickname "El Flaquito" ("Skinny") from his fans.
By contrast, Chavez insultingly refers to him as "the loser", the "candidate of the right" and, occasionally, a "fascist" - a particularly offensive term to Capriles given his maternal grandparents' suffering under the Nazis in Poland.
In recent days, he has eschewed an earlier moderate style and is going for the jugular, attacking Chavez at every turn.
"The government's candidate has been in power for 14 years and Barinas is the poorest state in Venezuela," he told a rally on Monday in the agricultural region where Chavez was born, after flying straight there from La Guaira, in Vargas state.
"He who forgets the land of his birth has no right to keep ruling," Capriles jeered, in words intended to sting the president, who makes much of his humble roots in the savannah.
When Chavez begins one of his hours-long speeches, his rival sometimes Tweets mocking ripostes, contrasting for example the country's daily problems with the socialist leader's aspiration to be a global revolutionary and solve planetary woes.
In the last week, he has been waving Chavez's election manifesto while scoffing at its pledges to "save mankind" and strive for a "new international geopolitic" dynamic.
"He wants to take his revolution to the world, but who takes care of the electricity cuts?" he asked this week, homing in on one of the subjects most important to voters, who are also worried about high crime rates, rising prices and lack of jobs.
Capriles constantly challenges Chavez to a TV debate.
And he has tried to capitalize on a string of bad news headlines for the government in recent weeks, including two refinery fires, the collapse of an important bridge and jail riots, by claiming government mismanagement.
Though Capriles's campaign has momentum, few Venezuelans underestimate Chavez. He may be less active than before, but he retains the charismatic, folksy rhetoric that has served him so well. State media ensure his appearances get blanket coverage and are shown over and over.
And then there's the money. A ramping up of state spending on social welfare programs - from house-building to allowances for single mothers - is guaranteed to win votes, while state institutions have barely concealed their use of official resources to support Chavez's campaign.
"This is the fight of David against Goliath. David won. And here is David with you," Capriles roared at the La Guaira rally on Monday.
His own cheaper campaign relies on donations and fund-raising by supporters - though he has plenty of well-heeled backers. He is coy on exactly who finances him, but some wealthy Venezuelan businessmen and exiles are thought to be helping out.
Capriles says he trusts the president's willingness to step down if he loses. Yet more radical opposition activists believe Chavez would do anything to stay in power, from rigging the vote to sending armed supporters into the street.
While there are no official international monitors for the election, the UNASUR group of South American nations is sending an observer team, and a raft of local non-governmental groups will be providing close scrutiny around the country.
Capriles's Democratic Unity coalition will be placing witnesses at almost all the voting booths, as will the government. In past elections, there have been plenty of accusations of fraud in remote polling stations, but there has not been evidence of widespread, centralized rigging that would have tipped the result.
Many analysts say the unfair use of resources during the campaign - specifically, Chavez's use of government institutions - is likely to be a bigger factor than any fraud.
Chavez has said he would accept defeat, although he views that possibility as less likely than - in a Biblical passage he loves to quote - "a camel passing through the eye of a needle."
(Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran Murray and Claudia Parsons)