BARINAS, Venezuela — The crowd stretched as far as the eye could see down Camejo Street.
On President Hugo Chavez's home turf, some 10,000 people lustily cheered Tuesday night for Julio Cesar Reyes, whom Chavez has branded a "traitor" because he's vying with Chavez's older brother to be the next governor of the state of Barinas. Chavez's father holds the job but isn't running for re-election.
"We're not afraid of anyone," Reyes said in a clear allusion to President Chavez and his family. "We're going to build a new society."
With many residents convinced that Chavez's father and brothers have stolen public money and abused power, Barinas is the highest-profile race in Sunday's state and local elections and represents one of the best opportunities for Chavez's opponents to gain ground.
With his near-absolute control over the political system at stake, Chavez has been campaigning furiously across the country, including three visits to Barinas over the past two months.
After 10 years in office, he needs a strong showing to maintain momentum for further extending government control over Venezuela's economy, retain his pre-eminent role over Latin America's leftist bloc and win public approval early next year to be allowed to seek re-election rather than have to leave office when his term ends in 2012.
Political analysts say that Chavez has strengthened his candidates' fortunes in recent weeks. He's savagely berated his foes, promoted his brand of socialism as the cure for the global economic crisis and inaugurated the construction of highways, schools and health clinics, even though the recent drop in oil prices is costing Venezuela billions of dollars.
Caracas-based pollster Luis Vicente Leon predicted a month ago that Chavez's opponents would win seven or eight of the 22 governorships on the ballot Sunday, compared with two victories in 2004. Leon now thinks that opposition candidates could win as few as three governors' races this year. However, he said that a Chavez defeat in Barinas would outweigh many victories elsewhere.
Opposition politicians predict that they'll win as many as 12 governors' races.
To prevent that, Chavez has promised to imprison a popular opposition candidate, branded one-time supporters such as Reyes as "traitors" and threatened to roll tanks onto the streets of one state if his candidate doesn't win.
"Chavez has been polarizing the electorate, and putting the focus on himself and away from the country's problems," Leon said. He noted that with Chavez's popularity level having risen to 57 percent from 46 percent in January, his best chance for a strong result Sunday depends on turning the election into a referendum on himself.
Opposition parties have set aside their differences to settle on single candidates in most of the winner-take-all races. They're hoping to build on their stunning victory a year ago, when voters rejected Chavez's first attempt to abolish term limits.
Besides the gubernatorial races, Venezuelans will elect 328 mayors Sunday. Pollsters expect opposition candidates to make gains but for Chavez-backed candidates to continue to hold a majority of the mayoral offices.
The elections come as plummeting oil prices have led analysts to predict that the oil-based economy will slow dramatically next year. This would force Chavez to reduce lavish subsidies for the poor and aid for political allies such as Bolivia and Cuba.
After spending weeks mocking the United States' role in the global crisis, Chavez has begun to acknowledge that Venezuela will suffer as well, but he's touted the country's $40 billion in foreign reserves as a bulwark against major problems.
He's also softened his steady criticism of the United States in the wake of Barack Obama's presidential election victory.
Pollsters say that crime is voters' overriding concern. The number of murders in Venezuela has doubled during his presidency to 13,000 last year. Caracas is the murder capital of the world, according to Foreign Policy magazine.
Voters also complain about a 35 percent inflation rate, the highest in Latin America, and chronic food shortages, the most recent being coffee.
"Everything is so expensive, and we're poor," said Aideo Ortiz, a 38-year-old slum dweller in Caracas.
Since his stinging defeat a year ago, Chavez has improved his standing by putting more food on supermarket shelves, creating more government jobs and boosting spending on popular education programs for the poor, known as "missions."
"He's done things that no other president has done, like reducing illiteracy through his missions," said Carlos Azan, a 29-year old teacher.
Zenaida Lopez, a 49-year-old secretary, pointed to Chavez's program of having Cuban doctors provide free health care.
Both of them spoke in the town of Libertad, outside of the city of Barinas — which is also a state — in western Venezuela.
Minutes later, dozens of motorcycles, SUVs, pickups and minibuses roared around Libertad's town square, with Chavez supporters in red T-shirts waving red flags as they hung from the vehicles.
Everyone dismounted and headed to a stage set up three blocks away.
There, the president's older brother, Adan Chavez, warned in a booming voice that opponents were planning to claim victory through vote fraud.
"Our enemies are capable of doing anything," said Chavez, 55, a one-time university professor who's served as his brother's ambassador to Cuba and minister of education.
The night before, a hip-hop band with a pounding bass line warmed up the crowd at the rally in Barinas for Reyes, who's served as the city's mayor for the past eight years.
"We want the Chavez family out," Jose Tovar, a 33-year-old truck driver, said in an interview. "They've enriched themselves and act like they are monarchs."
Along with their father serving as governor, President Chavez's brother Argenis has served as Barinas' secretary of state. Another brother, Anibal, is the mayor of their hometown, Sabaneta. Two other brothers — Narciso and Adelis — have had extensive business dealings with the state.
A local congressman has accused Argenis and Narciso Chavez of embezzling government money to buy ranches and build mansions in Barinas for themselves.
"They preach socialism but don't practice it," said Jesus Mercado, a 47-year-old accountant.
President Chavez has pulled out the stops to win Barinas, even inaugurating the construction of an international airport there, although the current airport has only six departures a day.
"If they win Barinas, it would be a blow to my kidney," Chavez said during his most recent campaign stop in Barinas, two weeks ago. "It would be like they were robbing my own nest."
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