Venezuela's ailing president has launched his re-election campaign, leading a massive rally as his main rival took to remote regions to canvass for votes.
Hugo Chavez, who is suffering from cancer, made a rare appearance at a rally in central Venezuela on Sunday to underline he is fit enough for the October 7 elections.
The campaign is a departure from frenetic vote-hunting manoeuvres of past elections when Chavez was in relatively good health.
"The Bolivarian hurricane has begun!" Chavez told tens of thousands of supporters in the central town of Maracay, referring to his personal idol and Venezuela's independence hero, Simon Bolivar.
Henrique Capriles, Chavez's main chalenger, flew to two distant spots near the Brazilian and Colombian borders to highlight alleged government neglect of remote communities.
"Venezuela is a blessed country. We just lack a good government," said the young ex-state governor seeking to end 13 years of socialist rule in the South American OPEC member.
With three months to the ballot, Chavez has a two-digit lead in most polls. Yet there is a large percentage of undecided
voters and one pollster this week put the pair head-to-head.
After three operations in Cuba to remove two malignant tumours, the 57-year-old Chavez has in recent weeks declared himself in full recovery.
"I want to thank Christ the Redeemer for allowing me to get through this difficult year," he said, after riding on the top
of a truck for several hours through streets lined with ecstatic supporters against a backdrop of lush hills.
Most analysts agree the presidential vote is shaping into the closest since Chavez took power in 1999, turning himself
into one of the world's most controversial leaders with his anti-American rhetoric and radical nationalisation policies.
Commitment to 'forgotten people'
Capriles, a former governor of Miranda state and a centre-left politician who admires Brazil's mix of free-market economics with strong welfare policies, is considered a formidable challenger.
His dash from the capital Caracas to the remote southeast, then across to La Guajira village on the western border near the Caribbean, was part of an opposition strategy to highlight the 39-year-old's energy and youth in contrast with Chavez.
"My commitment is to reach the most forgotten people," he said. "Over there nearby is Brazil. Its government understood
how to work. Brazil has taken off. Now it's Venezuela's turn."
Though Venezuela's opposition is more united than ever against Chavez, Capriles still faces an uphill task to overcome the president's unique rapport with the poor and vast spending power thanks to vast oil revenues.
Wearing his trademark red military beret, Chavez blew kisses, laughed and waved as he rode through the crowds.
"I am no longer Chavez, Chavez is a people. Millions of us are Chavez," he said in the inimitable rhetoric that has served
him well over the years. "Whatever they do to me, whatever happens to me, a mere human, they cannot get rid of Chavez."
He looked notably bloated and overweight from the effects of his cancer treatment and heavy medication.
Unusually, state media, where Capriles is normally only mentioned in insults, covered some of his activities on Sunday.
At one point, a split screen showed the rival rallies under the captions "Candidate of the Fatherland" for Chavez and
"Candidate of the Right" for Capriles.
Chavez's ministers lined up to call Capriles a "loser" and puppet of capitalism who would dismantle the popular missions
Chavez has set up to provide free education, health services and subsidized food in poor areas.
The government says it has put $400bn into social investments during Chavez's rule, reducing poverty by half to
about 25-27 per cent of the population of 29m.