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* VP Maduro, Chavez's favorite, looks in campaign mode
* Henrique Capriles is the opposition's most likely choice
* Candidates would face familiar problems, tricky economy
By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS, March 1 (Reuters) - Opposition leaders plot strategy behind closed doors. The government's presumed candidate blitzes the airwaves. Posters plaster walls.
Hugo Chavez is still president, but Venezuela feels like a nation heading fast towards an election for his successor.
A new vote would be called if the socialist leader fails to recover from cancer or cannot continue governing from hospital. Apart from a set of photos, he has not been seen or heard from in nearly three months, spawning rumors that he is close to death.
So it is hardly surprising that both sides of Venezuela's bitter political divide, while publicly wishing Chavez a full recovery, are also feverishly preparing for a snap campaign.
"A presidential election has not been called yet, but you have to be prepared and we are ready," said Henrique Capriles, the most likely opposition candidate.
Chavez beat Capriles when he won re-election in October, but the opposition leader has defeated two former vice presidents in regional votes and would probably face the current vice president, Nicolas Maduro, if Chavez dies or steps down.
"I've thrashed two vice presidents already ... . Bring on the third!" he said this week.
It was Chavez, 58, himself who fired the starting gun of sorts in the race to succeed him back in December.
In an emotional address to the nation before heading for surgery in Cuba - his last public speech, in fact - the president acknowledged he may not beat his cancer.
In that case, Venezuelans must adhere to the constitution and hold an election, he said, urging voters to back Maduro, a protege and loyalist whom Chavez views as the best qualified to continue his self-styled revolution.
Since that day, Maduro, 50, a burly and moustachioed former bus driver, has been running day-to-day affairs.
Although lacking Chavez's charisma, Maduro has set out to copy his style and lingo. He appears daily on television to harangue opponents and inaugurate public works, paying homage to his boss at every turn.
"We all feel like children of our commander-president Hugo Chavez. We want to be like Chavez, we are all Chavez," he said in one typical address, overseeing a handout of TV decoders in a Caracas shantytown.
Such daily appearances around the nation smack of an undeclared election campaign.
Though Maduro and other senior allies insist Chavez is still in charge, they also concede he is fighting for his life and Socialist Party sources confirm preparations are underway for a possible vote.
Worried at being caught by surprise and not having enough time to campaign, leaders of the opposition Democratic Unity coalition also started discreet meetings this week to discuss strategy and begin choosing a consensus candidate.
The centrist Capriles garnered a relatively impressive 44 percent of votes in his loss to Chavez - the opposition's largest share against the president, who has been in power since 1999.
While the sports-loving, 40-year-old state governor is the obvious opposition choice, there are mutterings of discontent from some of the parties in the coalition, who feel he elbowed them aside during the last campaign.
A protracted or unseemly tussle between Capriles and other aspirants could damage them by reminding voters of the divisions that held back the opposition in the past.
"It would be suicide" not to choose Capriles, said Henri Falcon, another of the opposition's three governors. He endorsed Capriles this month despite being seen by some as a possible rival.
Signs of discord inside the fragile opposition coalition, and discussion over a possible election, have been fodder for the government's ferocious daily verbal attacks.
"They're obsessed ... delirious," scoffed Diosdado Cabello, a former army buddy of Chavez who leads the National Assembly.
"The president's here, governing ... and they're desperately looking for candidates ... . Didn't they lose one election badly on October 7? And don't even mention December 16!" he said, referring to Capriles' loss to Chavez, and then the opposition's thrashing in gubernatorial elections.
Right now, Maduro looks favored to beat Capriles, given that the vice president would be viewed as the anointed heir and a continuation of "Chavismo" in a highly emotional atmosphere that would surround Chavez's retirement or death.
Local pollster Hinterlaces said Maduro had 50 percent of voter intentions versus 36 for Capriles, if a vote were held now.
One keen observer of Latin American leftist politics said the likely survival of "Chavismo" after Chavez showed just what a unique phenomenon his personality-driven and oil-financed rule was.
"The death of the strongman will strengthen the movement and the regime," said Joaquin Villalobos, a former Marxist guerrilla leader in El Salvador who is now a consultant and frequent critic of the left, in a column for Spain's El Pais newspaper.
He forecast Chavez's demise would stir the same quasi-religious fervour as that of Argentine radical Ernesto 'Che' Guevara.
"The left has no other saint who has given away as many checks to as many people. His premature death will help (his movement) survive the consequences of his inefficient government," added Villalobos, marvelling at Chavez's 2012 win despite a plethora of problems such as high inflation and crime.
This year, the same problems - from potholes to electricity shortages that many Venezuelans consider shameful for such a resource-rich nation - would figure prominently in an election campaign, as would a tricky economic backdrop.
Maduro has already pushed through an unpopular devaluation of the local bolivar currency, frontloading any political hit, but further inflationary pressures could hurt the government going forward.
What's more, most economists doubt the government will achieve its growth target of 5 percent this year, as the bills come in for its heavy spending ahead of last year's election.
"There may be a higher correlation between voter support and economic performance, which had not been obvious in past election cycles due to the cult of personality of President Chavez and the eternal hope of receiving entitlement benefits," said New York-based Jeffries' analyst Siobhan Morden. (Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran Murray and Xavier Briand)