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Maduro's lead narrows in Venezuela race

CARACAS -- Nicolas Maduro hopes to ride a tide of grief into Venezuela's special presidential election Sunday and win voters' endorsement to succeed the late Hugo Chávez, the divisive larger-than-life leader who chose him to carry on the messy, unfinished Chavista revolution.

That will mean inheriting both a loyal following among the poor and multiple problems left behind by Chávez, 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 Chávez's mismanagement of the economy and infrastructure: chronic power outages, double-digit inflation, and 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 Chávez's longtime foreign minister, hinted at feeling overwhelmed during his closing campaign speech to hundreds of thousands of redshirted faithful Thursday.

"I need your support. This job that Chávez left me is very difficult," said Maduro, who became acting president after Chávez died from 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 Chávez 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 Chávez. We are all Chávez." He promised to expand myriad anti-poverty programs created by the man he called the "Jesus Christ of Latin America" and funded by $1 trillion in oil revenues during Chávez's 14-year rule.

His campaign mobilized a state bureaucracy of nearly 2.7 million workers that was built up by Chávez while he cemented a near-monopoly on power, using loyalists in the judiciary to intimidate and diminish the opposition, particularly its broadcast media.

Many factories in the heartland operate at half capacity because strict currency controls leave them short of the hard currency needed to pay for imports. Business leaders say some companies are on the verge of bankruptcy.

The government blames shortages of milk, butter, corn flour and other staples on hoarding. The opposition points at the price controls imposed by Chávez in an attempt to cool double-digit inflation.

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