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Venezuelan leader Maduro has big poll lead over Capriles

Venezuela's opposition leader and presidential candidate Henrique Capriles (R) speaks to supporters during a rally in Maracaibo March 17, 20
Venezuela's opposition leader and presidential candidate Henrique Capriles (R) speaks to supporters during a rally in Maracaibo March 17, 20

By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's acting president, Nicolas Maduro, has a commanding 14-percentage point lead over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles ahead of next month's election, according to the first major poll published since the death of Hugo Chavez.

Maduro would win 49.2 percent of the April 14 vote compared with 34.8 percent for Capriles, according to the survey by pollster Datanalisis that was cited on Monday in a research note by Barclays Bank.

It followed other polls showing a solid lead for the 50-year-old former bus driver who has vowed to continue Chavez's state-centered economic policies built on heavy regulations of business and generous social welfare programs.

"Considering the short campaign period, the sympathy effect in the wake of Chavez's death, restrictions on the media, and the demobilization of the opposition after two defeats last year, Maduro remains the favorite," Barclays said.

Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state, lost to Chavez in the presidential election last October, and allied candidates swept 20 of the 23 governorships in state elections in December.

Chavez's death two weeks ago convulsed the country and triggered a new election in the South American OPEC nation.

The vote marks the first test of the "Chavismo" movement's ability to maintain the late leader's radical socialism after his death, and it will be crucial for regional allies that depend on Caracas for financing and cheap fuel.

The emotional outpouring of affection for Chavez following his March 5 death, along with ample use of government television broadcasts, has helped give Maduro a leg up in the race.

CAPRILES LASHES CUBA TIES

Millions of bereaved supporters have lined up before Chavez's remains to pay respects to a leader who was loved by many of the country's poor but reviled by adversaries who called him a fledgling dictator.

The youthful Capriles faces a delicate balancing act to highlight the flaws of Chavez's governance without appearing to be attacking him or seeking to tarnish his legacy.

He has exchanged furious barbs with Maduro since launching his candidacy and renewed his criticisms from last year's campaign over day-to-day problems such as unchecked crime, product shortages and high cost of living.

At a campaign rally on Monday, Capriles vowed to end shipments of subsidized oil to communist-run Cuba, slamming Maduro as a puppet of Havana.

"The giveaways to other countries are going to end. Not another drop of oil will go toward financing the government of the Castros," Capriles said, referring to Cuba's present and past leaders, Raul and Fidel Castro.

"Nicolas is the candidate of Raul Castro; I'm the candidate of the Venezuelan people," Capriles said during a speech to university students in the oil-rich state of Zulia.

A victory for Capriles would likely give global oil companies greater access to the world's largest crude reserves and offer investors more market-friendly policies after years of state-centered economics.

He said halting cheap oil sales to Cuba would free up resources to boost public employee salaries by 40 percent to make up for inflation that is one of the region's highest.

"Every day it's harder to find food, and every day food is more expensive," Capriles added. "This model is not viable."

Ties to Cuba are likely to remain a central part of the campaign. Capriles for months accused authorities of compromising the country's sovereignty by letting Chavez govern for two months from a Havana hospital.

Venezuela provides close to 100,000 barrels per day of oil to Cuba in exchange for a host of services including doctors that staff free health clinics in slums and rural areas.

'HATEFUL MINORITY'

Supporters say it has helped expand access to healthcare, while critics call it a mere subsidy to the Castro government.

Maduro's frequent visits to the island during Chavez's two-month convalescence there led opposition leaders to joke that he had picked up a Cuban accent.

In a televised campaign meeting, Maduro lashed out at Capriles, accusing him of failing to control violent crime in Miranda.

Maduro said he planned to stage campaign rallies from the Andean highlands to the sweltering plains where Chavez grew up.

"Three weeks before the election we can say that the people have the triumph in their hands, but we have to guarantee that triumph by working hard," Maduro said, describing himself and top party leaders as "apostles" of Chavez.

"The battle here is between the people of Chavez, the patriotic people, and the hateful minority, the oligarchy that looted this country."

(Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Paul Simao)

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