- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 12, 2006

CARACAS, Venezuela — The once crowded field of opposition candidates vying to run against President Hugo Chavez in December’s elections narrowed significantly last week, with voters now left to choose between the two-time governor of an oil-rich state and a professional comedian.

Manuel Rosales, governor of the northern state of Zulia, became the last of the “traditional” opposition candidates on Wednesday when his main challenger, Julio Borges of the Justice First party, withdrew his candidacy.

Speaking to a packed crowd of supporters, Mr. Borges pledged to support Mr. Rosales throughout the coming months and asked his supporters to do the same.

“Today is a day to put aside personal ambitions and unite. … This is the task at hand, because Venezuela is faced with two clear options: to continue along the path of division and unemployment, or take the road of peace and progress.”

Mr. Rosales is considered by many analysts to be the strongest of the opposition candidates seeking to defeat the leftist Mr. Chavez in the Dec. 3 elections.

He is a lifetime politician who has managed to climb the ladder of civil service with only a high school degree to his name. As the governor of Zulia, the country’s most populous state, Mr. Rosales comes to the race with a firm electoral base.

“Rosales was easily the strongest candidate of all,” said Humberto Najaim, a professor of political science at the Metropolitan University in Caracas.

“He has much appeal because he has already, in effect, defeated Chavez twice,” Mr. Najaim said. “Both times he has run for governor, Mr. Chavez ran a handpicked candidate against him, someone with unlimited resources, both in terms of finances and publicity. And both times, Rosales won.”

Still, Mr. Rosales faces an uphill battle in his fight for the presidency. A recent poll conducted by the local firm Datanalysis suggests that Mr. Chavez enjoys the support of 55 percent, where as Mr. Rosales has yet to break double digits, clocking in with only 9 percent.

And although the rest of Venezuela’s traditional politicians have all backed out of the race, there remains one other candidate seeking to unseat the president.

Benjamin Rausseo surprised the country three weeks ago when he announced his candidacy. Until now, Mr. Rausseo was best known as a stand-up comedian, most famous for his altar-ego, “El Conde del Guacharo,” a fast-talking Everyman incapable of discretion.

Mr. Rausseo’s is one of the most recognizable names in all of Venezuela. In the press conferences and public forums held since joining the race, he has stressed his humble beginnings and successful business career.

Apart from his stage act, he is the proprietor of a popular amusement park and has been studying toward a law degree.

Most analysts have been split on the prospects of Mr. Rausseo’s candidacy, saying that while he may represent a refreshing turn away from politics as usual, he lacks any sort of concrete vision as to what Venezuela could look like without Mr. Chavez.

“I think he is simply a businessman looking to make himself more visible,” Mr. Najaim said.

Mr. Rausseo is quick to counter such accusations, however.

“I am for real,” he said. “Rosales represents the old order. Chavez simply represents himself. I represent a third option, a centrist option. I am going to travel the country, mobilizing the people, getting out the vote. That is the secret; Chavez is defeatable. We simply have to face him head on, in an organized manner.”

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