- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2006

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez faces voters in fewer than two months with a credible opposition candidate, who says he can overcome a double-digit lead in public-opinion polls.

One of the most respected pollsters in Venezuela, Alfredo Keller, recently released his newest survey, which concludes that Mr. Chavez enjoys 50 percent support to Manuel Rosales’ 37 percent.

The lead makes the task daunting but not impossible, analysts say, because Mr. Keller’s poll also found increasing dissatisfaction with the current government among potential voters.

Polls have consistently shown that the Chavez government gets poor marks on security, as the country’s violent-crime rate has steadily increased during Mr. Chavez’s seven years in power.

“Rosales is a very intuitional person; he doesn’t follow polls or politics,” said Ivo Hernandez, a professor of political science at Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar University.

“I think that Rosales absolutely has a chance to carry the elections. People are really scared of what is going on here.

“Mr. Chavez is getting more and more radical, and no one wants to return to the instability of the 2002 coup. He still has about two months; in Venezuela, two months is enough for everything to change,” he said.

In 2002, a military coup removed Mr. Chavez from office for 48 hours.

Mr. Rosales, the governor of the oil-rich state Zulia, held a rally in the heart of Caracas Saturday that attracted an estimated 10,000 supporters.

It was the largest gathering of opposition forces in Venezuela since an effort to recall Mr. Chavez failed in August 2004.

Mr. Rosales is running with the unified support of the country’s often splintered and squabbling opposition.

In August, he emerged from a crowded field of potential contenders as the sole opposition candidate when Julio Borges and Teodoro Petkoff withdrew their candidacies.

Mr. Petkoff, now Mr. Rosales’ campaign manager, thinks the opposition’s bid to unseat Mr. Chavez is within its grasp.

“We are about to witness a close competition,” he told Agence France-Presse earlier this month. “We like to think of Rosales’s campaign as one of ‘national unity’ … as an attempt to restore civility to the political process.”

In both his initial and re-election campaigns for the Zulia governorship, Mr. Rosales defeated the hand-picked candidates of the Venezuelan president.

For his part, Mr. Chavez has frequently tried to portray the election as a choice between himself and President Bush, describing Mr. Rosales as nothing more than a stalking-horse for the CIA.

In late September, Mr. Chavez charged that his security forces had foiled an assassination plot while he campaigned in Zulia.

He said the would-be assassins were members of the Zulia police and part of a larger campaign by Mr. Bush to assassinate Mr. Chavez before the U.S. president leaves office in 2009.

The U.S. State Department has dismissed as “absurd” Mr. Chavez’s frequent charges that he is the target of a U.S. assassination plot.

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