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Rosales earns fervent fans in Venezuela

By Christopher Toothaker

The Associated Press | CARACAS, Venezuela 29 NOV 2006| The best hope for many Venezuelans fed up with what they see as increasingly autocratic rule under President Hugo Chavez may be a gravelly voiced political veteran with a reputation for boldness and grit.

On the campaign trail, Manuel Rosales pumps his fists in the air, provoking screams of near-religious fervor from thousands of exuberant supporters.

The gray-haired 53-year-old has managed to galvanize the fractured opposition as its unity candidate to face Chavez in Sunday's elections, and is drawing giant crowds even though he trails the incumbent in opinion polls.

"Democracy is at risk with this government, and Venezuelans need to unite to defend it," Rosales said, accusing Chavez of wanting to be president-for-life like his friend Fidel Castro of Cuba.

Rosales gets his message out forcefully through private Venezuelan TV stations and newspapers that carry a steady stream of Chavez criticism. He gets limited coverage on state television, which sometimes interrupts his speeches or films them from odd or unflattering angles.

Billboards for Rosales show him surging through campaign crowds and bear the slogan "Dare to change!" But Chavez billboards are much more numerous, and the opposition has complained that when Chavez seizes the airwaves to speak for hours, it amounts to an unfair campaign practice.

Rosales, who temporarily stepped down as governor of the western state of Zulia to run, is one of just a handful of opposition politicians to remain a regional powerbroker in defiance of the pro- Chavez tide. He was one of only two non-Chavistas to win governor's races in elections two years ago.

And while he has many middle- and upper-class supporters, Rosales has sought to make inroads among Chavez's traditional support base -- the poor.

He strongly criticizes what he calls handout social programs at the heart of Chavez's populist agenda, saying money is tossed about to secure political patronage. Instead, Rosales proposes creating a state-issued debit card to directly distribute one-fifth of Venezuela's oil income among the country's poorest families.

Many Venezuelans say the candidate, a cattle rancher who has been active in politics for three decades, lacks Chavez's charisma.

But in Venezuela's highly polarized society, this former mayor of Maracaibo, the country's second-largest city, has seen the campaign take on religious overtones.

At rallies, supporters press wooden crosses or figurines of Christ into Rosales' hands. Others give him pictures of saints or bottles of holy water -- displays of devotion also common among followers of Chavez, who often invokes Jesus as an inspiration.

When Rosales walks through crowds, supporters often try to push past security guards to shake his hand, hug or kiss him.

"He's the only hope we have to get rid of this government. That's why we love him," said Roselyn Fuentes, one of tens of thousands who joined a campaign march across Caracas.

"Take a look at this," Rosales said while riding in a sport-utility vehicle after a campaign stop, rolling up his sleeves to reveal bruises and scratches on his forearms. "That's the affection of the people."

Chavez avoids referring to Rosales by name, often calling him the "ex- governor" and depicting him as a U.S. pawn.

Rosales denies any links to Washington.

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