Drugs, lies and murder plots. Venezuela's compressed presidential campaign officially begins Tuesday in a race that will determine the future of the Andean nation after the death of President Hugo Chavez, who led the country for 14 years. But the accusations and innuendos being hurled between the two main candidates are threatening to turn this into one of the uglier races in recent memory.
At stake is Chavez's legacy and the future of his socialist policies that have helped reduce poverty and close the income gap even as draconian measures have led to food shortages, runaway inflation and eroding civil liberties.
Acting President Nicolas Maduro, 50, has vowed to win the April 14 vote as a tribute to his ex-boss and advance his "Bolivarian Revolution." And most polls give him a solid lead, as he rides the wave of sympathy generated by Chavez's death on March 5.
His contender, Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state, is hoping he can harness a demoralized opposition and attract one-time Chavez supporters who have become disillusioned by soaring crime, a stagnant economy and political polarization.
While Maduro and Capriles are fighting each other, they're also struggling to hold their parties together, said George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor of history and politics at Drexel University, and the author of the recently-released "We Created Chavez: A People's History of the Venezuelan Revolution."
Those internal divisions -- both in the opposition and the administration -- are forcing the candidate into rhetoric designed to shore-up their political base.
"Maduro and Capriles both need to prove themselves," he said, "and show that they are the aggressive representatives of their base."
Initially, both candidates said they would begin their campaigns in Barinas state, Chavez hometown. But over the weekend, Capriles said he would shift his kick-off to the northern state of Monagas to avoid a confrontation.
Passions have been running high as presidential policy debates seem to be taking a backseat to personal attacks.
In the days leading up to the campaign, Maduro and his allies suggested that Capriles is a homosexual drug addict who is going to put the nation's oil wealth in the hands of the United States. They've also accused former U.S. diplomats of plotting to kill Capriles in hopes of destabilizing the country.
Capriles has called Maduro a lackey of Cuba's Castro brothers, and says he has hijacked state resources and twisted the constitution to hold onto a seat that he doesn't deserve. He's also accused Maduro of lying about Chavez's health and death in order to maximize political gain. On Monday, Capriles said his team had uncovered a government plot to illegally use the military to get out the vote on election day.
"Everyone knows that [Maduro] has no leadership," Capriles said. "That's why he needs all the power of the state."
Capriles lost the presidency to Chavez in October by 11 points, and recent polls suggest he has a tough road ahead against Maduro. A poll late last month by Datanalisis, considered one of the more independent firms, gives Maduro a 14-point lead over Capriles.
A poll released Monday by GIS XXI, which is run by a former Chavez cabinet member, gives Maduro 55.3 percent of the vote versus Capriles' 44.7 percent. GIS founder Jesse Chacon told VTV television that Maduro's lead had widened since the beginning of the year. Other polls also give Maduro a double-digit lead.
When Chavez died after an 18-month battle with cancer, it triggered snap elections with tight time frames. This campaign will run for just 10 days.
That leaves Capriles with little time to woo voters, said Jose Antonio Gil with Datanalisis.
"It's going to be hard to turn his numbers around in 15 days," he said. "But in politics anything can happen."
Many of the allegations the candidates and their supporters are tossing at each other are recycled from past campaigns, others are more sinister. Last month, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said two former U.S. diplomats -- Roger Noriega and Otto Reich -- were working with the CIA to recruit "mercenaries" in Central America to kill Capriles.
Jaua said the plot was intended to generate violence in Venezuela to justify a "foreign invasion like they did in Libya and like they have wanted to do in our sister Republic of Syria."
Capriles has said that if anything happens to him it would be Maduro's fault, and both Noriega and Reich have ridiculed the allegations.
"Maduro's latest hateful fabrication is part of a cynical strategy aimed at distracting Venezuela from the man-made disaster of his party's 14-year 'socialist' rule," Reich, the former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and a longtime Chavez critic, wrote in an open letter. "Since Maduro could not win the election by offering the Venezuelans bread, because bread is just one of the many foodstuffs missing from store shelves, he offers circuses."
During his 14 years in power, Chavez perfected the art of name calling, said Gil with Datanalisis. Chavez regularly referred to the opposition as "the squalid ones" and "corrupt oligarchs" and called Capriles "a mediocre bootlicker."
But the invective in this campaign is reaching new heights, he said.
"Personal attacks are nothing new," he said. "What is new is their intensity."
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