Published by Reuters
Diego Ore in San Francisco de Yuruani and Girish Gupta in Maracay
President Hugo Chavez shook off his health problems to lead a massive rally on Sunday while opposition rival Henrique Capriles took to remote regions for the formal launch of Venezuela's presidential race.
Unable to repeat the frenetic campaigning of past elections due to his struggle with cancer, a fist-pumping Chavez nevertheless made a rare appearance at a rally in central Venezuela to underline he is fit enough for the October 7 vote.
"The Bolivarian hurricane has begun!" he roared to tens of thousands of supporters in the central town of Maracay, referring to his personal idol and Venezuela's independence hero, Simon Bolivar.
Capriles, a young ex-state governor seeking to end 13 years of socialist rule in the South American OPEC member, flew to two distant spots near the Brazilian and Colombian borders to highlight alleged government neglect of remote communities.
"Venezuela is a blessed country. We just lack a good government," he told indigenous inhabitants of the remote San Francisco de Yuruani hamlet, close to the majestic, flat-topped Roraima mountain in a barely populated region near Brazil.
With three months to the ballot, Chavez has a two-digit lead in most polls. Yet there is a large percentage of undecided voters and one pollster this week put the pair head-to-head.
After three operations to remove two malignant tumours during a year-long battle with cancer, the ever-upbeat Chavez, 57, has in recent weeks declared himself in full recovery and his energy levels appear to be surging just in time for the campaign.
"I want to thank Christ the Redeemer for allowing me to get through this difficult year," he said, after riding on the top of a truck for several hours through streets lined with ecstatic supporters against a backdrop of lush hills.
Most analysts agree the presidential vote is shaping into the closest since Chavez took power in 1999, turning himself into one of the world's most controversial leaders with his anti-American rhetoric and radical nationalization policies.
CAPRILES CROSSES COUNTRY
Former Miranda state governor Capriles - a centre-left politician who admires Brazil's mix of free-market economics with strong welfare policies - is considered the opposition's best hope after being outwitted for years by the wily Chavez.
His dash from the capital Caracas to the remote southeast, then across to La Guajira village on the western border near the Caribbean, was part of an opposition strategy to highlight the 39-year-old's energy and youth in contrast with Chavez.
"My commitment is to reach the most forgotten people," he said. "Over there nearby is Brazil. Its government understood how to work. Brazil has taken off. Now it's Venezuela's turn."
Though Venezuela's opposition is more united than ever against Chavez, Capriles still faces a formidable task to overcome the president's unique rapport with the poor and vast spending power thanks to vast oil revenues.
Wearing his trademark red military beret, Chavez blew kisses, laughed and waved as he rode through the crowds.
"I am no longer Chavez, Chavez is a people. Millions of us are Chavez," he said in the inimitable rhetoric that has served him well over the years. "Whatever they do to me, whatever happens to me, a mere human, they cannot get rid of Chavez."
He looked notably bloated and overweight from the effects of his cancer treatment and heavy medication.
Unusually, state media, where Capriles is normally only mentioned in insults, covered some of his activities on Sunday.
At one point, a split screen showed the rival rallies under the captions "Candidate of the Fatherland" for Chavez and "Candidate of the Right" for Capriles.
Chavez's ministers lined up to call Capriles a "loser" and puppet of capitalism who would dismantle the popular missions Chavez has set up to provide free education, health services and subsidized food in poor areas.
The government says it has put $400 billion into social investments during Chavez's rule, reducing poverty by half to about 25-27 percent of the population of 29 million.
The opposition recognizes some welfare improvements, but say Chavez should have done far more due to an unprecedented bonanza of oil revenues in the last decade. They accuse him of running Venezuela in a dictatorial style, on the advice of Cuba's Fidel Castro, and allowing corruption to flourish.
"People here were Chavista, but we've been waiting 13 years for them to fulfil promises and now we're tired," said Nelson Franco, 40, in San Francisco de Yuruani.
As well as Capriles' events, the opposition also organized scores of caravans around the nation on Sunday. Government supporters held parties and vigils across Venezuela overnight.
"Chavez's whole heart is open to the people," said Girolamo Ambla, 43, dressed in the red colours of Chavez's Socialist Party and clutching a doll of the president.
(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago, Juan Lagorio and Andrew Cawthorne, Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Sandra Maler)