Venezuela's opposition shrugged off polls showing President Hugo Chavez in the lead before October's election and said on Wednesday its candidate, Henrique Capriles, would win thanks to a tireless "house-by-house" campaign.
The 39-year-old state governor has been criss-crossing Venezuela for months, often stopping several times a day to go into homes, walk the streets and give speeches in a strategy designed to build grass-roots support.
Limited by his yearlong fight against cancer, Chavez, 57, is appearing only occasionally in public. But in recent weeks, he has returned to addressing Venezuelans frequently on TV, sometimes via "chain" broadcasts that local channels are obliged to carry.
Most of the latest surveys by Venezuela's main pollsters give Chavez a lead of more than 15 percentage points ahead of the October 7 presidential ballot, and the socialist stalwart is predicting a landslide win with 60 percent of the vote.
But Capriles' campaign manager, Armando Briquet, told Reuters the evidence on the street and in private surveys available to the opposition showed a very different picture.
"Right now, things are level and there are signs lately that the balance is tipping in our favor," he said.
"We are going to win. We have no doubt."
Capriles' camp was buoyed by a turnout of hundreds of thousands when he formally registered his candidacy in Caracas earlier this month. But Chavez supporters also turned up en masse when the president formalized his candidacy the next day.
The stakes are high not only for Venezuela, a nation of 29 million people with the largest oil reserves in the world, but for the wider region. Leftist allies such as Cuba and Nicaragua depend on Chavez's oil-financed largesse toward them.
Although staying generally quiet, Washington is watching closely to see whether its No. 1 irritant in the region wins re-election or exits the political stage after more than a decade of baiting and bashing U.S. officials.
'CHRIST, GIVE ME LIFE'
Briquet said Capriles' street campaign - which he has dubbed "house-by-house" and involves walking into countless front rooms day after day for informal chats - was successfully showing the different models on offer to Venezuela.
"People are seeing a president who is abusing power via TV 'chains' because he has no way of going onto the street. He has forgotten the people," he said. "We have a candidate who is in the street. ... We're replacing the monologue with a dialogue."
Capriles' supporters were unable to watch a private TV broadcast of a major rally in the western state of Zulia last week because Chavez blocked the airwaves with a long-winded discussion of Venezuela's economy.
The opposition candidate is projecting an image of youth and energy, while promising to follow Brazil's much-praised model of balancing free enterprise with social welfare programs.
Chavez remains popular due to his personal charisma and welfare "missions" providing free healthcare and education, plus subsidized food, in city slums and poor rural areas.
He says he is recovering from radiotherapy treatment after a February operation in Cuba to remove a tumor from his pelvis, although rumors persist that he has a fatal condition.
"This morning, I saw myself in the mirror and said, 'Hey, you look healthy, Chavez.' I feel healthy," he said on Wednesday in a three-hour TV appearance.
"Above all, I say to Christ, 'Give me more life,' because it's not for me, it's for your plan, so that your plan for Venezuela can advance," added the president, who has exhibited an increasingly deep Catholicism since cancer struck.
Chavez was speaking at the launch of a new "mission" to combat crime, which tops surveys as Venezuelans' biggest concern. He has presented more than a dozen such national anti-crime initiatives during his time in power.
"A TV 'chain' for more lies to our people," scoffed Capriles via Twitter. "Fourteen years of government, and now they're going to provide security?"
The opposition has opted for a down-to-earth manifesto emphasizing daily issues from child care to jobs, while Chavez's grandiose-sounding government plan ranges from continuing the "construction of socialism" to "saving the human race."
"He wants to be the savior of the world, but doesn't say how he's going to save Venezuelans' lives," said Briquet.
While the gap remains formidable, Capriles has been creeping up 1 or 2 points in recent weeks in polls. JPMorgan said on Tuesday that Chavez's lead may have topped out.
"If they're so confident, why doesn't he (Chavez) accept a debate?" Briquet said. "Chavez has always said, 'An eagle doesn't hunt a fly,' so why does he spend all day hunting Capriles?" he added, referring to the president's recent torrent of insults against his rival.