By Andrew Cawthorne and Diego Ore
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's young opposition leader Henrique Capriles began election day on Sunday jovially donning his "lucky shoes" - but ended it gravely trying to stem the tears of shattered supporters.
Yet another victory for Hugo Chavez, this one giving him a new six-year term, was too much to bear for some of the volunteers and fans who coalesced around Capriles for the opposition's best shot at unseating the president since he was elected 14 years ago.
"People should not feel defeated. God's timing is perfect, the country is not going to end today," Capriles consoled them, as he accepted electoral defeat shortly before midnight.
In the morning light, the opposition will reflect on an improved showing - 45 percent this time, up from 37 percent at the last presidential election, held in 2006. In Capriles they still have undoubtedly their most successful anti-Chavez candidate.
The 40-year-old state governor showed extraordinary energy on the campaign trail with a months-long "house-by-house" tour and made inroads into poor Chavez heartlands where the opposition had barely been able to show its face before.
He also managed to keep the hard-won and fragile unity of a diverse coalition of 30 or so political organizations, from left to right, whose only common factor was opposition to Chavez.
"Capriles has been, by far, the best candidate who has faced Chavez, and his story is barely starting," local pollster Luis Vicente Leon said, predicting Capriles would run for re-election as governor of populous Miranda state, which encompasses part of the capital Caracas, while continuing to steer the opposition at the national level.
"He has become the indisputable leader of the opposition and his face-to-face work is a key asset for the future."
While some opposition activists might like to curl up and cry, they have little time to lick their wounds before the next fight.
State governorship elections in December give them an early chance to try and improve on their share of seven states they control out of Venezuela's 24 - though Chavez will go into that fight with momentum from Sunday's win.
Crucial to their prospects will be maintaining the Democratic Unity alliance that was their single vehicle for the 2010 parliamentary and 2012 presidential elections.
While all the opposition leaders rallied behind Capriles after he won a resounding primary victory in February, there is no guarantee that egos will be kept in check going forward.
Telegenic former Caracas district mayor Leopoldo Lopez and Zulia state governor Pablo Perez are both ambitious men who belong to the same 40-something generation of opposition leaders who have broken with a more hardline "old guard."
The older leaders were discredited by their association with a pre-Chavez political elite - when corruption and nepotism were common - and their failed tactics of boycotting elections and trying to oust the president via street protests.
In his remarkable 14-year rule of the South American OPEC member, Chavez has won about a dozen national votes that also include referendums and legislative elections. He also survived a 48-hour ouster in 2002 from power by the military, and then saw off an oil industry strike and vast demonstrations by the opposition.
As he accepted defeat, Capriles gave a hint that he would try to keep a firm rein on the opposition when an ex-legislator called out that there had been fraud.
"Radicalism has always damaged Venezuela," he retorted. "I am never going to mess around with our people, or subject them to instability. The other side obtained more votes and that's democracy."
The 58-year-old Chavez did not deign to mention Capriles by name once during the campaign, preferring to insult him as a "loser", "sycophant" and even "fascist" - a particularly offensive epithet for a man who lost great-grandparents in the Holocaust.
Yet the president, in his victory speech, had rare praise for the opposition's quick acceptance of defeat.
Capriles' tactic during the campaign was to focus attention on everyday problems that Chavez had failed to fix: from pot-holed streets and the failing electricity grid, to runaway crime and collapsing bridges.
While that resonated with many voters, the margin of Chavez's win was still comfortable, reflecting the power of his personal connection with Venezuela's masses and the popularity of his welfare policies in the slums.
There is always a chance, of course, that Capriles - or another opposition leader - may get another crack at the presidency, should Chavez suffer a recurrence of his cancer.
Under Venezuela's constitution, a new election would have to be called if Chavez was incapacitated within the first four years of his six-year term.
Such thoughts, though, were far from the minds of dejected Capriles supporters in the early hours of Monday as they trooped to bed.
"We had invested all our hope this time," said sobbing housewife Teresa Perez, 51, outside his campaign base. "I can't believe it. I refuse to believe it. Now what am I going to do?"
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(Editing by W Simon)