CARACAS, Venezuela – It's been 14 years since Hugo Chávez took office. Since then he has charmed Venezuelans, inspired them and made them believe he is nothing short of their savior.
"Chávistas" are the lifeblood of the Venezuelan leader's leftist movement, and as he runs for re-election on Sunday, the question is whether Chávez still has enough popular appeal to stave off the toughest challenge of his presidency from youthful rival Henrique Capriles. It's a historic test for Latin America's most outspoken and divisive leader — and for his "Chavismo" movement.
His loyalists have been filling streets all over the country wearing red T-shirts with the slogan "Chávez isn't going away!" They cruise in caravans of motorcycles with posters of a smiling Chávez plastered to the handlebars. At campaign rallies, admirers hand him letters and women scream: "Chávez, I love you!"
For many in the crowds, "El Comandante" is the country's first president to genuinely care about the poor. They're thankful to the former paratrooper for building public housing, expanding free universities and setting up affordable state-run grocery stores.
Kengly Sanabria, a pregnant 21-year-old student, cheered at one rally in the town of Guarenas and showed off a message written on her bulging belly: "With Chávez, I'll be secure."
"I support Chávez to ensure my son's future," said Sanabria, who studies for free at a public university and says her family never could have afforded tuition otherwise. She shops at a government food store, gets checkups at a subsidized clinic and is applying for public housing.
She wore earrings emblazoned with images of the president, younger and with a confident gaze.
"I think people are going to support him because of the many benefits. The other candidate hasn't offered anything concrete," she said. "With Chávez, we have a secure future."
Some recent polls show Chávez with a lead of about 10 percentage points over Capriles, while others put the two candidates roughly even.
Violent crime, 18-percent inflation and accusations of government corruption and ineffectiveness have taken a political toll on Chávez, and the election will reveal how many remain loyal despite it all — and whether he still has his popular touch.
In the art of campaigning, Chávez is an expert. He hugs children joyfully, shouts to supporters and points a finger toward individuals in the crowd. Sometimes, he remembers faces and calls out names.
He exclaims, "Hola compadre!" and "God bless you!" with an energy and folksy touch that's infectious.
Even after battling cancer for more than a year, the 58-year-old looked lively and strong in the final week of the campaign, sweating in the intense heat during stops in the cattle-ranching plains where he was born.
"How are you all?" Chávez told a crowd as he strode through his native town of Sabaneta. "It rained a bit this morning, didn't it? But it's a beautiful day. Look at how the breeze blows in this savanna."
That theatrical flair is part of the Chávez allure. Although his public singing, dancing on stage and rambling speeches may seem over-the-top to outsiders, his supporters see it as evidence of his down-to-earth genuineness. It's something Venezuelans have never seen before from a president, and it fits his image as a break in a long line of corrupt politicians culled from the traditional ruling class.
"The president has awakened people," said Maria Virguez, a 60-year-old who stood in line on a recent afternoon to pick up a free copy of a Chávez biography distributed by the government. "If we lose Chávez, the country goes backward."
His supporters and government employees filled downtown Caracas streets by the tens of thousands on Thursday for his final rally, blowing horns and waving flags while his campaign jingle blared from speakers: "Chávez heart of the people!"
Chávez backers danced in the street, soaked by a heavy downpour. The president called for an "avalanche of votes." Fireworks thundered in the city.
At each stop, Chávez has trumpeted his "socialism for the 21st century" and emphasized that only his movement can guarantee stability and benefits for the poor and working class. After all, poverty has fallen from 50 percent in 1999 to 32 percent last year as hundreds of billions of dollars in oil earnings have flowed into the economy and government aid programs.
The government says more than $300 billion has been spent during Chávez's tenure on "social development," including health care and education. Cuban doctors provide free treatment at neighborhood clinics, and university enrollment swelled from 894,000 students in 2000 to 2.3 million in 2010.
Turning to Capriles, Chávez says Venezuelans can't risk letting the challenger win because he'll take away the programs millions depend on — something the opposition leader denies.
Then Chávez reaches for the grand finale. Only he can protect the gains, he says, because he is Venezuela itself and its people.
Judging by the reaction from Chavistas, that message has won him lasting loyalty.
"Since I haven't failed you in these 14 years, I promise I won't fail you in the next presidential term either," Chávez bellowed at one rally. "Because Chávez doesn't lie, because Chávez doesn't sell out, because Chávez is the people, because Chávez is truth, because all of you are Chávez. We all are."
Yet this year, the Chávez show is showing cracks.
The president's popularity has slipped since 2006, when he last won re-election with 63 percent of the vote. Chávez's support has remained strongest in mid-sized towns and rural areas, while voters in cities have increasingly turned against him.
Capriles, a 40-year-old former state governor, has made inroads by pledging solutions to everyday problems such as crime, blackouts, corruption and poorly run public services.
Chávez has tried to head off the complaints both by vowing to fix the problems but also by taking the high road.
"Some people may not be pleased with our government's flaws — that they didn't fix the road, that the lights didn't come back on, that the water went out, that I haven't found work, that they haven't given me my home," he said at a rally last week. "That could be true in many cases."
"But well, in any case what's at stake on Oct. 7 isn't whether or not they paved the road," Chávez said. "No! What's at stake is much more than that, comrades. The survival of the homeland is at stake."
Chávez's style draws on an eclectic mix of influences from Latin American leaders past and present such as 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, Cuba's Fidel Castro, Peru's Gen. Juan Velasco and Argentina's Gen. Juan Domingo Perón.
Like the classic "caudillos" of Latin America, Chávez has presented himself as a saintly protector of the poor fighting the elites responsible for Latin America's gaping social divisions. Massive public aid programs and an intolerance of dissent have followed.
That message once appealed to Guarenas resident Belkis Rivas, but after voting for Chávez the last three elections, she said she no longer thinks he's capable of running the country.
"The ideas he has are good, but the team that works with him doesn't do the things he wants," said Rivas, who emerged onto the sidewalk outside her apartment after a throng of Chávez supporters had passed. She said the soaring homicide rate, among the highest in the world, shows his policies are failing. Last year, her nephew was murdered.
Rivas also complained about the economy, including Chávez's seizures of private businesses. "All those situations made me turn the page," she said, gesturing as if closing a book.
However, her twin sister Jovahana Rivas, a pharmacist, was still on board with the president, calling herself "100 percent Chávista."
Walls in their neighborhood are spray-painted with slogans such as "I'm voting for Chávez." But one Chávista who stood on a rooftop also held a sign reflecting displeasure with crooked officials in his government: "Chávez!!! We still love you, but shake off the two-faced ones."
Taking on 'Goliath'
On the streets of Caracas, baseball caps emblazoned with the yellow, blue and red of the Venezuelan flag are selling fast, hawked by vendors who carry piles of them through lines of traffic.
The caps have become Capriles' signature during his frenetic campaign, and ahead of the vote many are wearing them. For "Caprilistas," they represent hope for change.
Capriles has called the election a "David against Goliath" contest, and both sides agree that Chávez went into the race with the clear advantages of an incumbent.
In a country with 18.9 million registered voters, at least 2.4 million rely on government jobs. Millions more rely on cash handouts and other social programs known as "missions."
More than 3 million families have signed up to receive government housing. Chávez says his government has built about 250,000 homes in the past two years, and while the opposition calls those figures grossly inflated, the mere hope of receiving a free home may be a significant incentive for some voters.
Capriles has been saying that time has run out for Chávez to deliver and that the election is not a conflict between left and right, as Chávez portrays it, but a choice between progress and stagnation. Supporters have been dancing at rallies to his campaign theme song, singing: "There's a way!"
In one measure of his appeal, Capriles' rally in Caracas on Sunday was the largest the opposition has mustered in about a decade, filling the city's biggest thoroughfare, Bolivar Avenue.
"I ask: What has 21st century socialism done for Caracas?" Capriles told the crowd.
He said that if he has an ideology, it's "to overcome poverty, have jobs, not have violence, invest Venezuelans' resources here to generate opportunities."
Then Capriles targeted Chávez, while following his practice of avoiding direct references.
"The one who's in Miraflores today has cheated the Venezuelan people," Capriles said, referring to the presidential palace.
After nearly 14 years in office, Chávez clearly still enjoys the loyalty of millions of supporters. But like Belkis Rivas, enough Chávistas have moved to Capriles' side that the president faces a real chance of losing the vote. The question to be answered Sunday is how many still have faith in the Chávez promise.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.