CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — For 14 years, Hugo Chavez has charmed them, inspired them and made them believe he is nothing short of their savior.
"Chavistas" are the lifeblood of the Venezuelan leader's leftist movement, and as he runs for re-election on Sunday, the question is whether Chavez still has enough popular appeal to stave off the toughest challenge of his presidency from youthful rival Henrique Capriles. It's a historic test for Latin America's most outspoken and divisive leader — and for his "Chavismo" movement.
His loyalists have been filling streets all over the country wearing red T-shirts with the slogan "Chavez isn't going away!" They cruise in caravans of motorcycles with posters of a smiling Chavez plastered to the handlebars. At campaign rallies, admirers hand him letters and women scream: "Chavez, I love you!"
For many in the crowds, "El Comandante" is the country's first president to genuinely care about the poor. They're thankful to the former paratrooper for building public housing, expanding free universities and setting up affordable state-run grocery stores.
Kengly Sanabria, a pregnant 21-year-old student, cheered at one rally in the town of Guarenas and showed off a message written on her bulging belly: "With Chavez, I'll be secure."
"I support Chavez to ensure my son's future," said Sanabria, who studies for free at a public university and says her family never could have afforded tuition otherwise. She shops at a government food store, gets checkups at a subsidized clinic and is applying for public housing.
She wore earrings emblazoned with images of the president, younger and with a confident gaze.
"I think people are going to support him because of the many benefits. The other candidate hasn't offered anything concrete," she said. "With Chavez, we have a secure future."
Some recent polls show Chavez with a lead of about 10 percentage points over Capriles, while others put the two candidates roughly even.
Violent crime, 18-percent inflation and accusations of government corruption and ineffectiveness have taken a political toll on Chavez, and the election will reveal how many remain loyal despite it all — and whether he still has his popular touch.
In the art of campaigning, Chavez is an expert. He hugs children joyfully, shouts to supporters and points a finger toward individuals in the crowd. Sometimes, he remembers faces and calls out names.
He exclaims, "Hola compadre!" and "God bless you!" with an energy and folksy touch that's infectious.
Even after battling cancer for more than a year, the 58-year-old looked lively and strong in the final week of the campaign, sweating in the intense heat during stops in the cattle-ranching plains where he was born.
"How are you all?" Chavez told a crowd as he strode through his native town of Sabaneta. "It rained a bit this morning, didn't it? But it's a beautiful day. Look at how the breeze blows in this savanna."
That theatrical flair is part of the Chavez allure. Although his public singing, dancing on stage and rambling speeches may seem over-the-top to outsiders, his supporters see it as evidence of his down-to-earth genuineness. It's something Venezuelans have never seen before from a president, and it fits his image as a break in a long line of corrupt politicians culled from the traditional ruling class.
"The president has awakened people," said Maria Virguez, a 60-year-old who stood in line on a recent afternoon to pick up a free copy of a Chavez biography distributed by the government. "If we lose Chavez, the country goes backward."
His supporters and government employees filled the streets of downtown Caracas by the hundreds of thousands on Thursday for his final rally, blowing horns and waving flags while his campaign jingle blared from speakers: "Chavez heart of the people!"
His backers danced in the street, soaked by a heavy downpour. Chavez entertained them on stage playing air guitar. He called for an "avalanche of votes," and when he finished, fireworks thundered in the city.
At each stop, Chavez has trumpeted his "socialism for the 21st century" and emphasized that only his movement can guarantee stability and benefits for the poor and working class. After all, government figures show that poverty has fallen from 50 percent in 1999 to 32 percent last year as hundreds of billions of dollars in oil earnings have flowed into the economy and government aid programs.
The government says more than $300 billion has been spent during Chavez's tenure on "social development," including health care and education. Cuban doctors provide free treatment at neighborhood clinics, and university enrollment swelled from 894,000 students in 2000 to 2.3 million in 2010.
Turning to Capriles, Chavez says Venezuelans can't risk letting his challenger win because he'll take away the programs millions depend on — something the opposition leader denies.
Then Chavez reaches for the grand finale. Only he can protect the gains, he says, because he is Venezuela itself and its people.
Judging by the reaction from Chavistas, that message has won him lasting loyalty.
"Since I haven't failed you in these 14 years, I promise I won't fail you in the next presidential term either," Chavez bellowed at one rally. "Because Chavez doesn't lie, because Chavez doesn't sell out, because Chavez is the people, because Chavez is truth, because all of you are Chavez. We all are."
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