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Ill Chavez upbeat as Venezuela campaign opens

Sep 14, 2011, 12:43 p.m.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez talks to the media during a meeting with the representatives of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) at Miraflores Palace in Caracas September 9, 2011. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's 2012 presidential election campaign was unofficially underway on Wednesday, with President Hugo Chavez and his foes rallying supporters and predicting victory in the South American OPEC member.

Authorities set the vote for October 7, 2012 -- day of the patron saint of Chavez's birthplace Sabaneta and also the birthday of a leading opposition leader -- meaning Venezuelans are in for more than a year of noisy politicking.

"I give the order to prepare for the battle and the great victory on October 7," Chavez said, after again reassuring supporters he would soon recover from his cancer treatment.

"I'm going to give a little surprise to those who think I'm close to the tomb," the 57-year-old socialist leader added in a string of buoyant calls to state media.

Chavez's cancer diagnosis and ongoing chemotherapy have given him a small sympathy bounce in opinion polls, where his approval remains above 50 percent.

Yet ill health has also hurt his aura of invincibility.

The voluble Chavez has led Venezuela since 1999, remolding the economy along statist lines and turning himself into one of the world's most vocal U.S. critics. But he faces an opposition movement more united than ever and set to rally around a unity candidate after a primary election in February.

Analysts say that while Chavez has vastly more resources to sway voters, it is an open race given how divided the nation is and the uncertainty surrounding his health.

The president is due to start a fourth session of chemotherapy in coming days, which he said on Wednesday was purely preventive to stop any spread of malignant cells.

He said the fourth chemotherapy round should be the last, but few details are known about his precise condition after surgery in Cuba to remove a tumor in the pelvic area.

"LET THE GAMES BEGIN"

Though minimizing public appearances and following a stricter personal routine on doctor's orders, Chavez has remained ubiquitous via calls to media and Twitter messages.

That has analysts predicting a "virtual" campaign rather than his usual grueling criss-crossing of the nation.

An October election date, earlier than Venezuela's traditional December timing for presidential votes, gives Chavez less time to recover but also means a shorter campaign that would be less demanding on his health.

"I think Chavez would win anyway, despite his health, but definitely the change in date helps him, because he's taking advantage of the show over his health," said university professor Marietta Garcia, 34.

After its internal vote for a February primary, the opposition Democratic Unity movement will have two months less than expected for campaigning, but that might not be a bad thing given its inferior finances.

If the opposition is to unseat Chavez, who has held them off with relative ease during most of the numerous national votes since he came to power, its leaders must remain united.

Analysts say the opposition must also make a mammoth effort to woo Venezuelans, particularly in poor urban and remote rural areas that are Chavez strongholds, and it has to project policies that go further than just opposing him.

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