Venezuela rivals make final pitches in bitter campaign

Venezuela's acting President Nicolas Maduro and opposition rival Henrique Capriles will close Thursday their brief and bitter campaign to replace Hugo Chavez on the anniversary of a failed coup against the late leader.

One month after Chavez died, Maduro and Capriles head toward Sunday's election after a campaign marked by insults, allegations of assassination plots and the transformation of the fallen firebrand leftist into a religious-like figure.

Named by Chavez as his political heir, Maduro has a double-digit lead in opinion polls and has pledged to continue a socialist revolution that has brought popular education, health and food programs to the poor through petrodollars.

While the late leader reduced poverty, he left behind the highest murder rate in South America, with 16,000 homicides last year, and a slew of economic problems, from high inflation to shortages of basic foods despite Venezuela's oil wealth.

After criss-crossing the politically polarized nation for days, Maduro will close his campaign with a big rally in Caracas with Argentine footbal legend Diego Maradona on hand, while Capriles will make his final pitch in the northwestern state of Lara.

"There will be a huge crowd for Maduro. Chavez chose him as his son to continue his legacy," said Crucita Suarez, wearing a fake Maduro-like mustache under a red tent of campaign workers in Caracas.

"We are in pain for our eternal comandante, thinking of the coup by this rancid oligarchy," she said.

Chavez has cast a huge shadow over the election, with the last day of the campaign coming on the 11th anniversary of the April 11, 2002, coup against the former colonel.

Maduro has sought to link the current opposition to the coup, which was led by business leaders with the help of rebellious military officers, and public television has run footage of the events all week.

The putsch lasted just 47 hours, with loyal soldiers returning Chavez to power amid popular protests that left 19 people dead. Capriles, who was a mayor at the time, has denied having any ties to the coup.

After 14 years in power, Chavez designated Maduro as his political heir before heading to a final round of cancer surgery in December. The 58-year-old president died on March 5.

Maduro -- a 50-year-old former bus driver and union leader who rose to foreign minister and vice president under Chavez -- has adopted his mentor's bombastic rhetoric while calling himself the "son" and "apostle" of Chavez.

He invokes Chavez in religious terms, calling him "Christ the redeemer of the poor." The opposition mocked him after he said the late president's spirit visited him in the form of a "little bird."

The campaign has turned nasty, with Maduro deriding Capriles as a "little bourgeois" while the opposition leader has dubbed his broad-shouldered rival a "bull-chicken."

Maduro has claimed that the opposition wants to sabotage the nation's power grid to cause a blackout before the election. He has also alleged that former US officials and the Salvadoran right-wing plotted to kill him.

Capriles, who lost to Chavez by 11 points in a presidential election in October of last year, describes his campaign as an "epic crusade" against the Maduro administration, accusing it of unfairly using state funds and flooding the airwaves to dominate the campaign.

The 40-year-old Miranda state governor, who managed to united the historically divided opposition, has offered a business-friendly brand of moderate, Brazilian-like center-left policies.