Maturin, Venezuela — Emerging from his bus, Venezuela’s opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles is engulfed by frenzied female supporters who push past bodyguards to hug, kiss and photograph their idol.
Most are young and have been waiting for hours under the sun to see him. Laughing and punching his fist in the air as he wades through his fans, Capriles emerges on stage moments later to roars from the crowd and screams of “Marry me, skinny!”
“He’s more than a politician, he’s a rock star!” said 19-year-old law student Eugenia Diaz, waving a heart-shaped banner that read “I love you, Henrique!” at a rally on a basketball court in Maturin in Venezuela’s sweltering eastern plains.
As in the 2012 presidential election, which Capriles lost to the late socialist president Hugo Chavez, the youthful and energetic opposition leader is once again creating a buzz as he criss-crosses the South American nation ahead of the April 14 vote.
Yet despite the euphoria around him, the 40-year-old state governor again looks like a long shot, this time struggling to catch up with acting President Nicolas Maduro, who sells himself as Chavez’s political heir.
Chavez named Maduro as his preferred successor before dying of cancer on March 5. Playing heavily on that, Maduro has a formidable lead over Capriles with three recent polls showing him ahead by between 14 and 21 percentage points.
Neither Capriles, nor the scores of strategists and advisers around him from the 30 or so political movements in the opposition Democratic Unity coalition, underestimate their task.