Venezuela election fight to succeed Chavez begins

The campaign to succeed the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has officially begun and so has the mudslinging, good and thick.

Nicolas Maduro, the hand-picked political heir of the bombastic populist and leftist firebrand who died last week of cancer, officially registered his candidacy for the April 14 election.

So did his opponent, state governor Henrique Capriles, whom Chavez had defeated back in October to win another term, although Capriles gave him a better run for his money than Chavez was used to.

Maduro, a former bus driver who worked his way up the political hierarchy, tried to cash in on a wave of emotion and sympathy in the wake of his mentor's death.

"I am not Chavez, but I am his son and all of us together, the people, are Chavez," Maduro declared to thousands of the late president's supporters, massed outside the National Election Council, as he officially registered to run in the election.

Maduro also vowed to make progress against gun-related crime, one of the top public concerns in this violence-wracked nation, which has a homicide rate eight times worse than the world average.

"There cannot be weapons to kill with, to use in hold-ups; that has got to stop," he said, unveiling a plan to take weapons off streets of poorer neighborhoods.

Capriles, an energetic 40-year-old, kept his followers off the street but warned Maduro on Sunday: "I won't leave you an open path."

Later Monday, Capriles also registered his candidacy.

"This campaign is between you and me, Nicolas. Let's leave the (late) president out of it," Capriles said. He told his supporters, "I do believe we can win.

"We are going to have to fight, but threats are not important. This fight is completely skewed," he added.

Analysts say Maduro is favored heavily. Chavez picked him as his successor in his last public appearance before going to Cuba for cancer surgery in December.

The Venezuelan president died on March 5 and was eulogized on Friday in a lavish state funeral that drew leaders from around Latin America and anti-American allies, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Meanwhile, the US State Department announced the expulsion of two Venezuelan diplomats in a tit-for-tat response to the expulsion of two US Air Force officers by Venezuela last week.

Capriles has accused Maduro of lying about the president's health to buy time to prepare for the elections.

"Now on top of it all, you are using the body of the president to stage a political campaign," he said Sunday.

Minutes later, Maduro went on state-run television, and, standing in front of a picture of Chavez in military uniform, accused his rival of trying to foment violence with "disgusting" accusations.

"His mask has fallen and we can see his nauseating fascist face," he said, warning that the Chavez family was reserving the right to take "all legal action to defend the honor of president Hugo Chavez."

"He is looking for the people of Venezuela to ... go on the path of violence," he alleged, urging Venezuelans to "not fall for provocations."

Amid popular pressure to place Chavez alongside South American independence hero Simon Bolivar in the national pantheon, Maduro said he would propose a constitutional amendment to the legislature on Tuesday to move him there.

He called Chavez "the great redeemer of the poor."

The move would lead to a referendum in 30 days that could coincide with the presidential election. The body will first be moved on Friday to a military museum where Chavez plotted a failed coup in 1992.

Luis Vicente Leon, director of pollsters Datanalisis, said the grief over Chavez's death gives the government an advantage in the race.

"It will be a battle between the divine and the human," he said.

Farith Fraija, a political scientist and blogger, told AFP: "It's not a race between Capriles and Nicolas Maduro. It's a race between Capriles and Chavez."

Chavez's expropriations and nationalizations of key industries riled the wealthy while the opposition accused him of abusing state funds and dominating state-run media in his campaigns.