By Brian Ellsworth and Mario Naranjo
SABANETA, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan acting President Nicolas Maduro made a pilgrimage to late socialist leader Hugo Chavez's birthplace on Tuesday and pledged to win the April 14 election in his honour.
"We regard Chavez as our father. He marked our life, that's why we came here to make an oath in the land of his birth that we will never let him down," Maduro, 50, said in the village of Sabaneta where his former boss was born.
"I am going to be president of this country because he ordered it," Maduro added at the launch of his formal election campaign before the oil-producing South American nation's presidential poll.
Opinion polls give Maduro, a former bus driver who rose to be Chavez's foreign minister and vice president, a formidable lead of between 11 and 20 percentage points over opposition challenger Henrique Capriles.
The burly and moustachioed Maduro is benefiting from the personal blessing of Chavez, who named him as his preferred heir three months before dying of cancer on March 5.
That endorsement, in Chavez's last public speech, stopped in-fighting over the succession within the ruling Socialist Party and transformed Maduro's status in the eyes of his mentor's passionate supporters.
"I support Maduro because Chavez left in him the hopes of solving the people's problems, I will support him as long as he has the same feelings as Chavez," said Carlos Guzman, a 23-year-old farmer in Barinas state in western Venezuela, which includes Sabaneta.
Maduro also has a well-financed state apparatus behind him, working-class credentials that play well with loyal 'Chavista' supporters, and the goodwill of millions who have benefited from Chavez's oil-funded welfare policies or "missions." Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves.
OPPOSITION ADMIRES BRAZIL
Capriles is a centrist state governor who wants to roll back the economic nationalizations and political polarization of the Chavez era in favour of a Brazilian-style model of free markets with strong welfare spending.
He was launching his campaign in the oil-producing eastern state of Monagas on Tuesday. Opposition strategists are hoping the "sympathy" effect over Chavez's death will wear off, giving Capriles a fighting chance if he focuses voters' attention on their myriad daily problems from potholes to power cuts.
Capriles, 40, also vows to keep Chavez's "missions," though he plans to staff them with Venezuelans instead of the more than 40,000 Cuban workers who poured into the country under Chavez.
"With Henrique Capriles, from April 14 all Venezuelans will earn more, eat better and sleep peacefully," his campaign director Carlos Ocariz said at an event in Caracas to launch the formal 10-day period of campaigning.
Capriles is promising to raise the minimum salary by 40 percent to counter the impact of a recent devaluation, diversify the economy away from oil, and combat crime levels that ballooned during Chavez's 14-year rule.
He lampoons Maduro as an incompetent official trying pathetically to imitate Chavez.
Maduro's visit to Sabaneta on Tuesday was a recreation of Chavez's successful presidential re-election bid last year, when he began a series of rallies in his home village.
Accompanied by family members and political leaders, Maduro and others told stories about Chavez - recalling, for example, that he used to sell sweets on the local streets. Musicians played Chavez's favourite "llanera" music from the plains of Venezuela which inspired much of his rhetoric and ideas.
"Nicolas Maduro will be elected on April 14 by the majority of our people to continue accelerating the revolution," said Chavez's elder brother, Adan, alongside Maduro in the garden of the humble home where they were brought up by their grandmother.
They admired a tree planted by Chavez and called "Revolution," and another named "Rebellion" that was placed by Bolivian President Evo Morales on a previous visit to the house by the two Latin American leftist leaders and friends.
Though Maduro looks on course to win the vote, he faces a tough task beyond April 14 putting state finances back in order after blowout election-year spending in 2012 and balancing a disparate coalition that for years was kept in line by the strong personality of Chavez.
(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Mohammad Zargham)