CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Now that Henrique Capriles has easily won Venezuela's first-ever opposition presidential primary, he's not just up against any other incumbent. The young governor will have to defeat a veritable political phenomenon.
Even after 13 years in office, President Hugo Chavez remains a hero to many of his supporters and maintains a visceral connection to a significant segment of the poor in Venezuela. He also will likely use the full powers of his government and a bonanza of public spending to seek victory in the Oct. 7 election.
In order to compete, Capriles will need to win over voters who leaned pro-Chavez in the past, who have grown disillusioned with the government and don't strongly identify with either side.
"We came here to unite our nation," Capriles told thousands of supporters in a victory speech. "It isn't the time of lefts or rights. It's the time of all Venezuelans."
Venezuela has grown heavily polarized, with most either admiring or despising Chavez. About one-fourth of voters are in neither political camp, though, and in that group about 10 to 15 percent are likely to cast ballots, said pollster Luis Vicente Leon. Many of the swing voters are young people who have grown up during Chavez's presidency, Leon said.
Capriles will need voters such as 21-year-old Mariangela Aguero, who was 9 when Chavez was first elected in 1998 and remembers her father celebrating in their poor neighborhood when the former army officer won.
Since then, Aguero's mother has benefited from a government program that provided construction supplies to build a new home, and in her neighborhood many are in Chavez's camp.
"He has a lot of followers," said Aguero, who works at a store selling yarn and buttons. "I think it would be tough for him to end up leaving the government."
But when it comes to her own vote, she said neither side has given her something to believe in yet.
"There's a lot of corruption on both sides," Aguero said. Despite the aid her family has received, she said, governments always seem to promise a lot but usually deliver little and descend into corruption.
Venezuela's opposition is rallying around Capriles following his victory in Sunday's vote, with a likely boost in the polls. The once-divided opposition has gained popularity in recent years, and the race could end up being the toughest re-election bid of Chavez's career.
Opposition election chief Teresa Albanes announced the preliminary results with 95 percent of ballots counted, saying that Capriles won 62.2 percent of the vote while Zulia state Gov. Pablo Perez had 29.9 percent.
Voter turnout in the primary surpassed most expectations, with about 2.9 million ballots cast out of Venezuela's 18 million registered voters.
Some of Capriles' supporters say they think he has a good chance of winning over Venezuelans who otherwise might lean pro-Chavez because he has taken a largely non-confrontational approach toward the president while promising solutions to problems including 26-percent inflation and one of the highest murder rates in Latin America.
His approach reflects a belief among some in the opposition that a successful challenge means treading lightly and avoiding alienating working- and middle-class voters who might not share the loathing for the president felt by many in the opposition but are ready for change.
Diego Prada, a 23-year-old marketing manager, said he thinks Capriles' inclusive approach offers a much better shot against Chavez than that of other competitors who have taken a hard line against the president.
"People are tired of so much confrontation," Prada said. And Capriles, he said, offers "a message of unity."
The leftist president easily won re-election with 63 percent of the vote in 2006, but since then his popularity has declined.
Chavez's approval ratings have topped 50 percent in recent polls, and his struggle with cancer doesn't appear to have hurt his popularity. The 57-year-old president says he's cancer-free after undergoing surgery and chemotherapy last year, and has been energetic in his hours-long television appearances, apparently trying to show he can still keep up with a younger challenger.
Chavez has already kicked his campaign machinery into gear. He's increased government spending by launching new social programs that offer cash benefits for the poor and invested heavily in new railways, public housing and cable car systems in Venezuela's sprawling hillside slums. As the election nears, he will inaugurate other big-ticket projects that grab attention, including the planned launch of Venezuela's second Chinese-made satellite shortly before the October vote.
But Chavez has warned voters that if they don't re-elect him, his social programs called "missions" would vanish. That threat, though disputed by Capriles, could have an influence on some in the run-up to the vote.
Many working-class Venezuelans say they still believe in Chavez and his socialist-inspired program, even as some "Chavistas" openly complain of inefficiency and corruption within his government.
"There are good things and bad things because nobody's perfect, but ... he's helped poor people a lot," said Heidi Lopez, a 33-year-old who raves about the discounted food at government-run markets and thinks Chavez's popularity remains strong.
As for Capriles, she said, "I don't like him."
Capriles, the 39-year-old governor of Miranda state, has won a large following due to his charisma as well as his record as an adept administrator.
Mercedes Aponte, a 60-year-old high school teacher, said she's convinced Capriles would bring improvements in education, health care and anti-crime efforts.
"Through him, there's hope. It's a new day dawning for Venezuela," Aponte said, waiting to vote in a line that snaked around the block in downtown Caracas.
Capriles is a moderate who describes his views as center-left. Recent polls before the primary vote showed Capriles with about 40 percent support among opposition voters.
Capriles might not be able to compete with Chavez's government money nor the president's ability to take over the airwaves of all TV and radio stations when he deems appropriate. But Capriles can count on ample campaign funding from anti-Chavez donors, as well as high visibility in opposition-aligned media including the television channel Globovision, private radio stations and newspapers.
The country's opposition coalition, which united to hold a presidential primary vote for the first time, has become better organized and will be an important ally in mobilizing voters for Capriles against Chavez's campaign machine.
The results were announced with 95 percent of ballots counted, and Capriles dominated the field with more than 1.8 million votes. Several of the opposition contenders called the higher-than-expected turnout a victory.
Thousands of Capriles' supporters celebrated the victory as fireworks exploded overhead. His four defeated rivals promptly united behind Capriles, appearing on stage with him, and pledged to back his campaign.
"In union there's strength!" Capriles shouted to the crowd.
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez, Christopher Toothaker and Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.