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Inside the war room of Venezuela’s election underdog

Venezuela’s downtrodden opposition candidate Henrique Capriles is unlikely to win in the April 14 election, called after Hugo Chavez’s death. He has just a few weeks to turn things around.

CARACAS, Venezuela — Does it make sense to go negative? Is there time to barnstorm out west? And why did that airport shut down just before the candidate’s plane was due to land?

Welcome to the frantic, hypersonic, and — at least according to the Caracas “thinkocracy” — doomed presidential campaign of Henrique Capriles.

He’s Venezuela’s opposition candidate in a snap election called for April 14, following the death from cancer this month of President Hugo Chavez. Not only is Capriles the underdog in the race against acting President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s hand-picked successor, but he has just a few weeks to turn things around.

What’s more, after losing to Chavez last October, then winning re-election in December to his post as governor of Miranda state, Capriles is running his third campaign in six months. And it’s starting to show.

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“Capriles is already thin,” says Venezuelan TV executive Maria Fernanda Flores. “But he’s going to end up transparent.”

Though the Capriles team can fall back on the experience and contacts gained during last year’s votes, this campaign is especially daunting. For one thing, pro-government candidates won 20 of 23 governor’s races in December, leaving Capriles with fewer political allies to lean on as he hits the campaign trail.

There’s little time to raise money, write speeches, compose campaign jingles, book buses and hotels and organize field workers. And right in the middle of the whole thing comes this week’s Easter Holiday, when nearly all of Venezuela shuts down for and hardly anyone pays attention to politics.

Still, his people press ahead.

More from GlobalPost: Capriles says campaign war of good vs. evil

“We cannot sit and think ‘Can we do it?’ We have to do it … today,” says Andrea Radonski, a volunteer who is Capriles’ aunt and godmother. “We wake up very, very early. Some volunteers call people. Some look for money. Some look for food. If we will have the time to make a T-shirt or a hat — I don’t know.”

Amid the rush, some things fall through the cracks.

During a recent visit to his national campaign headquarters, no one had bothered to put a “Capriles for president” sign on the building. And it wasn’t exactly visitor-friendly. Entering required ducking through a 4-foot-high metal door built into a storefront security gate.

Inside, workers were scrambling to paint offices, hang electoral maps and set up phone banks. Last year’s slogan, “There’s a way forward,” has given way to a new one: “Venezuela is for everyone.” But banners and posters have yet to be printed so last year’s propaganda has prevailed at the early rallies giving the campaign a hand-me-down vibe.

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Venezuelan presidential candidate for the upcoming 14 April elections, Henrique Capriles, rests in a van at the end of a pre-campaign rally in Guarico on March 21. Leo Ramirez AFP/Getty Images

Through it all, Capriles must contend with the government’s blatant use of public resources to boost Maduro.

For example, the government often pre-empts nationwide TV and radio programming to broadcast pro-Maduro propaganda, even though such interruptions are supposed to be used only for emergencies or vital public information.

In the war room one afternoon, Capriles workers shook their heads in dismay as the TV news program they were monitoring suddenly cut away to yet another government pronouncement. This time it was a prerecorded message from one of Chavez’s daughters who spent the next five minutes lauding her late father and rhetorically ripping Capriles a new one.

Capriles has pledged to campaign all across Venezuela. But his tour got off to a rough start when the government, citing bad weather, closed an airport in western Tachira state shortly before the Capriles campaign plane was to touch down. Capriles called it sabotage.

“Come on, Nicolas,” Capriles tweeted afterwards, calling the acting president by his first name. “Do a real campaign without abusing power.”

Then, there’s the cash problem. Although many businesses complain about the government’s socialist policies, they also have government contracts. And they fear retaliation if they donate to Capriles.

“Forget about it,” says Carlos Romero, a Caracas political analyst. “The majority of Venezuelan entrepreneurs are refusing to give money to the opposition. They have a lot of business with government. And they are afraid of the government.”

But perhaps the Capriles team’s biggest challenge is to convince voters that their candidate has a fighting chance in the wake of last year’s drubbing when Capriles lost to Chavez by 11 points.

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“You fight the battle,” says Camala Joly, a Capriles volunteer. “You try to motivate people because we Latin people are very up and down.”

Many of his supporters were dismayed last year when Capriles refused to launch a sustained attack on the ailing Chavez. It was an especially frustrating scenario because Chavez insisted to voters that he was cured of cancer, strong as a horse, and ready to serve another six-year term. Chavez died on March 5, five months after he was re-elected.

This time around, Capriles has gone negative, accusing Maduro of mismanaging the economy during Chavez’s illness, allowing crime to skyrocket, and fomenting government corruption.

“There is no time for Capriles to be a peace-and-love candidate,” Romero says. “He has to confront the government.”

Maduro’s strategy is to wrap himself in the aura of Chavez, who gained a massive following by spending billions of petrodollars on health, education and nutrition programs that helped lift many Venezuelans out of poverty.

More from GlobalPost: Hugo and me — GlobalPost correspondent’s memories of Chavez

A former bus driver, union leader, foreign minister and vice president, Maduro, 50, has skillfully kept the Chavista coalition united in the wake of their leader’s death. He also promises to continue with Chavez’s social welfare programs. In one recent ceremony, dutifully covered by pro-government TV stations that dominate the airwaves, Maduro gave out the keys to free government houses to poor families.

Yet Maduro keeps sticking his foot in his mouth.

To much fanfare, he declared that like Mao and Lenin and Ho Chi Minh, Chavez’s body would be embalmed. But when the leader’s remains badly deteriorated after being dragged through streets of Caracas in a massive funeral procession under the tropical sun, Maduro was forced to backtrack.

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He accused unnamed enemies of inoculating Chavez with the cancer that killed him. He insinuated that the unmarried Capriles is gay. He even suggested that Chavez, from the great beyond, helped elect the new pope.

All this sparked an incredulous response from Caracas Chronicles, a widely read blog about Venezuelan politics.

“Maduro and his peeps are crazy …. I mean, really? Cancer inoculation? Playing regional politics with the Papal election … from heaven? Not-so-subtle hints that Capriles is gay, and in love with Maduro?” said one recent post.

“We’re not twisting their words. These are their actual thoughts! And they repeat them, over and over. They’ve built a propaganda offensive around pure lunacy.”

Still, Maduro is banking on a massive sympathy vote after Chavez’s funeral and he invokes the late president every chance he gets. According to a website (Maduro says) tracking his speeches, Maduro has mentioned Chavez more than 4,200 times since his death, or about 200 times per day.

But it seems to be working. A poll released last week by the respected Caracas firm Datanalisis put Maduro 14 points ahead of Capriles.

So why is Capriles even running? He’s only 40, but if he loses back-to-back elections in six months, some say it would spell the end of his presidential ambitions.

Roberto Giusti, a veteran political reporter with the Caracas daily El Universal, says that due to the short election cycle the opposition had no choice. Capriles is the only candidate with national name recognition.

Back at his campaign headquarters, Radonski dismisses naysayers who claim the results on April 14 will “quemar” or burn Capriles.

“I think this will make him stronger,” she says. “For me, only rice burns.”