CARACAS, Venezuela — Nicolas Maduro hopes to ride a tide of grief into Venezuela's special presidential election today and win voters' endorsement to succeed the late Hugo Chavez.
That will mean inheriting both a loyal following among the poor and multiple problems left behind by Chavez, troubles that have been harped on by opposition challenger Henrique Capriles.
Although he's still favored, Maduro's early big lead in opinion polls sharply narrowed in the past week as Venezuelans grappled with a litany of woes many blame on Chavez's mismanagement of the economy and infrastructure: chronic power outages, double-digit inflation, food and medicine shortages. Add to that rampant crime — Venezuela has among the world's highest homicide and kidnapping rates.
Maduro, a former union activist with close ties to Cuba's leaders who was Chavez's longtime foreign minister, hinted at feeling overwhelmed during his closing campaign speech to hundreds of thousands of red-shirted faithful Thursday.
"I need your support. This job that Chavez left me is very difficult," said Maduro, who became acting president after Chavez died of cancer March 5. "This business of being president and leader of a revolution is a pain in the neck."
Capriles, a 40-year-old state governor who lost to Chavez in October's regular presidential election, hammered away at the ruling socialists' record of unfulfilled promises as he crisscrossed Venezuela. His campaign libretto included reading aloud a list of unfinished road, bridge and rail projects before asking what goods were scarce on store shelves.
Maduro, 50, hewed to a simple message, a theme of the October presidential campaign: "I am Chavez. We are all Chavez." He promised to expand a myriad of anti-poverty programs created by the man he called the "Jesus Christ of Latin America" and funded by $1 trillion in oil revenues during Chavez's 14-year rule.
His campaign mobilized a state bureaucracy of nearly 2.7 million workers that was built up by Chavez while he cemented a near-monopoly on power, using loyalists in the judiciary to intimidate and diminish the opposition, particularly its broadcast media.