Have Venezuelans tired of the Chavez revolution?

After three oversized wins, and three bouts with cancer, Venezuela's champion revolutionary is facing his strongest challenger yet in Sunday's election, Connie Watson reports.

14-year president is facing his strongest challenger yet in Sunday's election

His is a campaign that is literally on the run and also, it seems, on the rise, according to some polls.

But whether 40-year-old Henrique Capriles can actually unseat Venezuela's strongman president Hugo Chavez — the scourge of Western imperialism — this weekend is very much up in the air.

Still, most observers seem to agree that Chavez, who is recovering from three surgeries to combat cancer, is facing his stiffest challenge yet from the wiry, much more youthful state governor, who has managed to cobble together a very united opposition this time out.

The pace of the campaign, too, may be playing a role.

Because of his illness, Chavez has been forced to take it easy this campaign. He's only held about two dozen rallies around the country since the official start on July 1.

In contrast, Capriles has toured almost non-stop, hitting at least 300 towns and cities, literally running through the streets.

As he does this, he sometimes ducks into a van to whip off another sweat-soaked shirt, wipe lipstick off his face and even tend to the odd scratch from over-exuberant fans, before hurling himself back into the crowd again.

It's exactly what the younger Hugo Chavez used to do.

Henrique Capriles: a united opposition and noticeably more energy this time out. (Rodrigo Abd / Associated Press)

Capriles has generally avoided bringing up Chavez' illness, but his frenetic campaign style seems to underline the message he wants to convey.

"Fourteen years are enough," he says in reference to how long the president's been in office. "Twenty years" — if Chavez wins a new six-year term on Sunday — "are too many."

The 'Bolivarian Revolution'

But does Capriles really have a hope of beating one of the most powerful men in the hemisphere?

In Venezuela, Chavez's populist Bolivarian Revolution, as he likes to call it, has delivered food, education, health care and hope to millions of Venezuelans who had never before benefited from the country's oil riches.

Most of these people are devoted to the president and feel they owe him their loyalty. He won the last election, in 2006, with 63 per cent of the popular vote.

What's more, over the past 14 years, Chavez has slowly increased his hold on power in just about every sector of the country, from the oil industry to the courts.

And that hold is buttressed by his broader efforts in the region.

Chavez has exported petrodollars and tankers full of oil to Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Bolivia, among others, in order to expand what he refers to as "21st century socialism" and win friends.

On the campaign trail, he touts these achievements but adds that what he has done so far is only "the foundation for a historic project that will take our lifetime."

A changing Venezuela

Still, much has changed in Venezuela since its last election. Oil prices have fallen since their 2008 highs and the financial crisis hit the country harder than most in the region, economists have said.

Critics like Capriles say Chavez has spent too much time dreaming of his ideological revolution while leaving people's day-to-day problems unsolved.

And that message seems to be resonating among voters, judging by the large crowds the upstart candidate is now drawing.

Capriles strategy has been to peck away at the myth that has built up around Chavez, and so he asks voters if their problems are being solved.

Have they been victims of crime? Do they have a good job?

He goes after the president for what he hasn't been done during his time in office, listing the chronic power shortages, the alarming increase in violent crime that everyone here is talking about, the rising inflation rate and the scarcity in some places of even basic consumer goods such as milk and sugar.

"Why, after all these years of an oil bonanza has there been no significant progress in this state?" he asked at a rally recently in the heart of the country's oil-producing region.

Here in Caracas, the almost constant traffic gridlock points to what Capriles calls the serious lack of investment in the country's infrastructure. And critics say the same thing about Venezuela's golden goose — the nationalized oil industry.

Instead of re-investing its profits and modernizing, the government has tripled the amount of money it diverts from industry for its other projects, from $16.5 billion in 2004 to $58.6 billion last year.

But many ordinary Venezuelans are starting to ask what's in it for them.

Red bull

The president never refers to his rival by his name, calling him instead everything from a boot licker to bourgeois.

"You have to remember where he comes from" Chavez told a recent rally. "The bourgeoisie candidate was born to a golden crib and he was raised within those homes of the bourgeoisie.

"He never wanted for anything, he has no clue how to struggle in a neighbourhood and raise children, a family. He doesn't know how to struggle for the country. He doesn't know, the poor thing."

Capriles, indeed, has never been married. Though he says he's getting plenty of proposals during this campaign. But he probably does know something about struggle.

Two great grandparents died in the Treblinka concentration camp and his grandparents on his mother's side fled Poland and arrived in Venezuela with one suitcase, setting up a cinema that turned into a profitable family business.

Despite his Jewish roots, Capriles is a devout Catholic who wears a rosary.

He loves running, drinks Red Bull to maintain his campaign pace and calls himself a "progressive," a centre-left politician who would run the country along the lines of Brazilian-style socialism. In other words, helping the poor but welcoming private investment.

Chavez's party labels him a secret neo-liberal who will kill all the social programs if he wins. Their handout asks: "Do you want to lose everything we've won?"

The polls here have been all over the place and many people say they are not that reliable in any event. But the electoral tension these last days is palpable.

One man, who's voting for Capriles says he can't give me his name because he works for the government. "I'm a public servant, I have to wear a red (Chavez) shirt but many public servants aren't for Chavez."

He also said that while he had been forced in the past to attend Chavez rallies, that hasn't happened in recent years – until just this week.

His boss ordered him and everyone else on staff to show up for the president's final campaign rally Thursday in Caracas, in order to fill the streets.

Does this mean Chavez is worried? Judging by his newest campaign message this week, maybe. He's promising to be "a better president" if he's re-elected.